You are at sea and conditions have rapidly deteriorated. Your vessel is taking on water and the only option is to abandon ship. The radio equipment has been rendered useless and you are left floating or treading water in the blue abyss. This could spell the end for some – but it doesn’t have to. If there was an EPIRB, PLB or satellite messenger aboard then help could already be on the way.
As conscientious boaters we should all hope for the best and plan for the worst to ensure the safety of all onboard. Filing a float plan and having all the required safety equipment on board is a start, but if things were to go horribly wrong while at sea one of these emergency beacons could save your life. Despite this, many boaters don’t have this equipment. With advances in technology and lower prices, and even rentals available from organizations such as those offered by BoatUS, there is little reason not to. With over 35,000 people rescued since the inception of the 406 beacon in the early 1980s, they are well proven. Whether you are a cruiser, fisherman, day sailor or paddle enthusiast there is a beacon to fit your needs. There are EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Beacons), PLBs (Personal Locating Beacons) and personal satellite messengers. Each has its particular advantages and any of them can get help to you in a life-threatening situation when all other forms of communication are lost.
EPIRBs are the most commonly known variety of rescue beacons and can be found on vessels from ocean liners to cruising sailboats. Registered to the vessel they reside on, these emergency beacons (also known as 406 beacons) transmit an emergency signal when activated. A signal containing a unique identifier number is transmitted at approximately 5 watts on 406 MHz (as well as a homing signal on 121.5 MHz) and is broadcast to and received by one or several orbiting satellites. That signal is then sent on to a control center that determines which search and rescue organization should be contacted and dispatched (worldwide). If the EPIRB has a built-in GPS, the position information is also transmitted and can be received by receivers placed on GOES weather satellites that are part of the GEOSTAR system.
Mikele D’Arcangelo of ACR Electronics, a major manufacturer of emergency beacons explains why having an EPIRB with built-in GPS is so important.
“ACR has made a stand going forward that we will only manufacture GPS-enabled EPIRBs because the benefits GPS adds are truly life saving. Most people think that adding GPS coordinates only narrows down the search radius, and it does. But the other benefit that a lot of readers do not understand is the additional time saved to being rescued that GPS provides. A non-GPS EPIRB has to rely on the LEOSAR satellites to use Doppler shift principles to triangulate your position. These satellites go overhead typically once every 45 minutes.”
You are at the mercy of timing, says D’Arcangelo. You could be lucky enough to set it off (the EPIRB) when a satellite is within transmit range, but if you’re not so lucky the wait for one to appear could be as long as an hour. “With GPS positions added to your distress message the EPIRB uses the GEOSAR satellites to instantly tell SAR forces within two minutes exactly where you are.” This time saving can be critical in a rescue scenario.
EPIRBs are available with and without built-in GPS but are becoming more common with GPS capabilities. Cost of these units has dropped considerably over the last few years and they can be found under the $500 mark. They are available in two categories. Category 1 units are automatically deployed and are mounted to a vessel in a special bracket. This has a hydrostatic release that will free the unit and activate it when submerged. Mounting location is critical. It should be placed where it can be grabbed in an emergency but also in a location where, if it does auto-release, it will not become trapped or entangled in the vessel’s superstructure or rigging. A Category 2 unit is manually deployed and activation is manual via a switch.
PLBs or Personal Locator Beacons are another form of emergency beacon that is rapidly gaining in popularity and has proven wildly successful. Just in the initial test phase, before they were released to the general public, these units saved over 400 lives. Unlike their larger brethren these compact units are designed for personal use and are registered to the individual rather than a vessel (registration is mandatory and required, just like EPIRBs, and can be done easily via fax, mail or online).
These small (sometimes palm-sized) beacons operate in the same manner as EPIRBs and can also have GPS built in, enabling position information to be transmitted. Designed to be carried on the person these small beacons are capable of transmitting for a minimum of 24 hours at up to 5 watts, but because they have smaller batteries this can be as much as half the time of the larger EPIRBs. Their batteries, like their larger relatives, should be replaced by an authorized repair facility approximately every five years. They can be used on the water and on land and, because they are registered to the individual, they can travel from vessel to vessel without having to be re-registered. These units are ideal for crew who move from vessel to vessel or operators of smaller craft that lack the space or ideal mounting for a Category 1 or 2 EPIRB. Price is also in their favor as some models can be purchased for under $200. It is worth noting that all these units have to be manually deployed and need to be held above the water to transmit their signal. Some models float while others require the help of a buoyant case. It is recommended that all should be tethered to your person or life jacket when in the water. It should be noted that these beacons (along with EPIRBs) must be registered but do not require any kind of subscription. Some units now have the option of sending a test message that can be customized and sent via text or email, however, this service does require a subscription fee and there may be a limit to the number of test messages that can be sent. Check with the manufacturer for details but remember that if you do not require this service there are no additional costs other than the cost of the unit and that of battery replacement every few years.
There is a third option known as a satellite messenger but these are in a completely separate and growing category and will be addressed in a subsequent article.
No matter which you choose, when venturing out away from readily accessible help you should have some kind of beacon aboard. The cost is lower than ever to purchase and higher than ever if you need one and don’t have it to deploy.