Whilst in mid-ocean in the afternoon, a Mayday was received on channel 16 by the 2nd Mate who was on watch at the time. The Mayday consisted of a ships name and position, but this message not clearly distinguishable by the 2nd Mate. It was clear however from the message that the ship was on fire.
The 2nd Mate immediately called the Master who came to the bridge. After 10 minutes, as no response was given by other vessels, we tried to contact the vessel in distress. Even though we tried several times by VHF on channel 16, we did not get a response.
I wanted to check if anyone else heard the Mayday, before contacting the coastguard, so checked my AIS and identified one other vessel in the area.
After repeated calls we finally made contact and found that the same voice, as was heard transmitting the Mayday, was now on the radio.
We asked if the vessel had sent the Mayday. We found that the ship was performing a drill and the person had sent the Mayday by VHF as part of the training scenario.
After a short conversation to check one more time that the vessel really was not in trouble we closed communications. If I had not eventually had a response from the ship, I would surely have reported the Mayday to the coastguard, after which a very expensive but unnecessary search for a vessel on fire would have been started.
This report was referred to the manager in the Asia-Pacific region of the vessel that transmitted the Mayday. As yet, no response has been received. In the absence of a response, we surmise that a junior member of the ship’s staff had been delegated to handle communications during the drill, but that it had not been sufficiently emphasised that external communications should be simulated and not actually transmitted. It is easy to blame the individual, but had proper instructions been given? Notwithstanding the error, we should give credit to the vessel for carrying out what was presumably a realistic exercise. (On board your vessel during drills, do you simulate the preparation of emergency messages?)
This report also illustrates a general point applicable to both on-board exercises and to larger exercises involving a number of parties. Care needs to be taken in explaining to everyone the communication boundaries, i.e. clarify which external parties can actually be contacted and which must be role-played. We recall a story of an intra-office exercise, long ago, in which the name of an actual ship was used, although the ship was not involved. An office staff member subsequently phoned the real ship to ascertain the extent of the Second Engineer’s “injuries”, causing consternation and confusion.