The Latest in EPIRBS

©2010 BoatUS
©2010 BoatUS

It was supposed to be a routine recreational passage from the Bahamas to Maryland. Yet, fate decided otherwise when without warning and in 20 knots of breeze, the mast came crashing down aboard the 36-foot catamaran, Cata-Tonic. The accident didn’t injure owner Jon Rodnon and his two crewmembers, and didn’t put the vessel in immediate danger, but it did knock out communication since the VHF antenna was attached to the top of the mast. Plus, their location 40 miles offshore the coast of North Carolina, meant no cell phone coverage. The situation soon worsened when the mast, rig and sails cast into the sea from the crash threatened to either drag the vessel into a capsize or hole the hull. That’s when Rodon did something he had prepared for, but hoped to never use. That is, he activated the McMurdo Smartfind Plus G5 EPIRB he had rented from the BoatUS Foundation for the trip. Ten minutes later, U.S. Coast Guard watchstanders diverted a cutter to assist. Thirty-five minutes later, the cutter’s crew fired a heaving line to the catamaran and ferried over hydraulic bolt cutters that enabled Rondon and crew to cut themselves free, start engines and safely motor to port for repairs. Rondon returned the rented EPIRB to BoatUS with a note: “This unit saved our lives. Thank you. You guys rock!”

“Anyone who lives, works or enjoys spending time on or near water needs to consider the benefits of being able to alert the search and rescue authorities,” says Sean McCrystal, senior maritime marketing manager for the McMurdo Group, headquartered in Valbonne, France. “The specific reasons for an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) over smaller more portable PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) devices is time. An EPIRB guarantees a minimum of 48 hours of distress capability compared to the PLB’s 24 hours. This, will give the authorities time to get to you.”

SmartFind EPIRB and lifeRraft in Water ©McMurdo
SmartFind EPIRB and lifeRraft in Water ©McMurdo

An EPIRB works, when activated, by transmitting a 406 MHz distress signal. The signal provides a unique 15-digit identification number to the Cospas-Sarsat Satellite System. Owning an EPIRB isn’t required by law in the U.S., but having one does require its mandatory registration. This ID number allows ground station operators to verify the call, as well as the name of the vessel, owner and owner’s emergency contacts. The station then passes the EPIRB location to rescue forces such as the Coast Guard nearest to the boater’s location.

“EPIRBS come in two different categories of brackets,” explains Jessica Hughes, marketing and technical director for Jacksonville, Florida-headquartered Revere Survival Inc., which carries the Ocean Signal brand, of which some models are 30 percent smaller than others on the market, making them easy and lighter weight to put in a ditch bag or on a lift raft. “Category 1 comes in bracket that automatically releases once it hits water; it can also be manually deployed. Category 2 is manually released only. Some people carry a Category 2 in a ditch bag and Category 1 in an accessible place onboard. Redundancy is always helpful if an emergency arises.”

Currently, the most desirable EPIRB is one that is GPS (Global Positioning System) enabled.

“GPS-enabled EPIRBs enable search and rescue agencies to receive both your distress signal and exact GPS coordinates. This means the difference between a 2-nautical mile radius search area compared to one of 100-yards with GPS,” says Ted Sensenbrenner, assistant director for Boating Safety Programs, at the Alexandria, Virginia-headquartered non-profit BoatU.S. Foundation. “Additionally, there’s a speed factor. A standard 406 MHz EPIRP can take up to 90 minutes for your position to be registered with search and rescuers, depending on the position of passing satellites, while its only about 3 to 5 minutes for a GPS-enabled EPIRB.”

The latest development is AIS (Automatic Identification System)-enabled EPIRBS.

“Our AIS EPIRB, which is unique to McMurdo, has four frequencies to not only contact global search and rescue authorities, but also simultaneously uses the AIS to alerts AIS enabled vessels in the local area that there is a vessel in trouble and where,” says McMurdo’s McCrystal.

The next technological advancement will be EPIRBS with a Return Link Transmission function.

“Right now, an EPIRB can send a distress signal but no one can signal back that a rescue effort is underway. An advanced next generation satellite based technology that is revolutionizing the Cospas-Sarsat system is the Medium-altitude Earth Orbit Search and Rescue System (MEOSAR). MEOSAR improves the systems current functioning as well as enabling additional features such as the return link. The next-generation of beacons, which we expect to have ready by 2019, will be able to confirm to the user a distress signal has been received. Research is currently underway as to weather this return notification will be digital or light-based.”

EPIRBS on the market today can cost from the $100s to $1,000s.

“We in the safety world recommend you purchase the best EPIRB you can afford. Alternatively, the BoatU.S. Foundation’s short-term rental program offers GPS-enabled EPIRBS for $65 per week, plus shipping. As we know from Cata-tonic owner, Jon Rodnon, and other cases in our rental files, EPIRBS save lives,” says Sensenbrenner.

Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.