Efficient response to maritime incidents and accidents requires good communication processes and situation awareness by all involved parties, in particular between the Search and Rescue (SAR) response operators and the crew of the distressed vessel. In this paper, a method is proposed for enhancing the communication between the involved parties, by focusing on the safety status of the vessel. Borrowing ideas from well-established working methods in especially emergency medicine, the Vessel TRIAGE method has been established through a broad stakeholder consultation process. Its intended application is to assess and communicate whether a vessel can provide a safe environment for the people onboard. Using a set of threat factors and a four-level ship safety categorization, the method aims to establish a shared understanding of the nature of the distress situation, which in turn has implications for the operational focus of the SAR operators and vessel crew. An evaluation of the proposed method indicates a positive reception among various maritime stakeholders, suggesting that implementing the Vessel TRIAGE method in maritime SAR procedures may act as a useful tool to assist in the management of maritime distress situations.