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EPIRB: A Lifesaving Device Every Boater Should Consider

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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!”

©2010 BoatUS
©2010 BoatUS

EPIRB GPS – Lifesaving Rescue Beacons

“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.”

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.

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

Emergency Beacon Basics – EPIRB / AIS / PLB / PAB? What’s the Difference?

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“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.

Saved by the Beacon

“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.

Do You Have What it Takes to Cruise

“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.

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  1. Unfortunately the author of this article is sadly out of date. EPIRBS are obsolete, replaced by satellite texting and emergency systems such as inReach and others.

    • Really. what percentage of boaters do you know to have this type of equipment on board? and what good is that equipment when you are forced into the water or raft by weather or fire ? an epirb will take to the raft with you and can deploy by its self if need be. i am happy for you that money is no object to the best electronics on board your Yacht but the rest of us still rely on obsolete but effective safety devices, some times a rental for that one or two times we go offshore .

  2. Personally I’d hardly consider EPIRBs obsolete, and will continue to rely on their decades of proven effectiveness, and in particular, established and tested processes for communicating and coordinating emergency information across international and government boundaries. I am not willing to trust my fate solely to a private service operated by a private company. Best yet, be prudent and enjoy the benefits of redundancy by using all options available to you.


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

So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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