This post is number 8 in our series on offshore safety in small boats. Previous posts covered: “Getting Out and Back”, “Staying Afloat“, “Man Overboard“, “Fishing Hazards“, “Is There a Doctor in the House?“, “Being Seen“, and “Being Heard“. In this post, we cover:
Assume we’re in trouble – the motor’s out, the weather’s bad, the radio is down (or we’re out of range), and we forgot to charge the satellite phone. Is there anything else we can do?
- First, toss out the sea anchor. As mentioned in Part III of our Offshore Safety series , sea anchors are an important safety tool if you lose power. They slow down your drift, and if tied off correctly, they will swing the boat bow-into the wind, which is the safest orientation in most cases.
- The second thing we’d do is turn on our Emergency Position Indicator Beacon (EPIRB).
- EPIRBs use a network of low-earth orbit satellites run by NOAA to relay emergency assistance requests from anywhere in the world. This emergency service is free to the public
- The satellites are also used to give rescuers the location of the EPIRB to within a 2 nautical mile radius or less.
- If the EPIRB has a built-in GPS or a GPS interface, the unit’s position from the GPS will be transmitted with the distress call, providing even better position information.
- They start automatically when released and immersed, have a built-in strobe and secondary radio homing beacon, and run for up to 48 hours.
- The emergency assistance requests are automatically sent to the nearest government maritime safety organization (the USCG in our case).
We won’t go into the underlying technology, as there are lots of sources of data on this topic Just remember that you want a Category I or II 406 mHz EPIRB. Get one with a built-in GPS or a GPS interface if you can afford it.
EPIRB prices have dropped substantially from when we purchased our ACR Satellite2 406. A basic unit equivalent our current unit now costs in the $350 range, versus $800 when we bought ours. Higher-end units with integrated GPS can be found in the $650 range. EPIRBs have to be serviced periodically, and must be registered with the FCC, but the cost is nominal. On the grand scale of things, EPIRBs are probably one of the best choices you can make if you’re taking a boat a long distance offshore.
There are a couple of different options for mounting and deployment. We have a manual (Category II) release mount on the side of Toy Boat 2’s console, as we could not find a place for the larger automatic (Category I) release mount. Another option is to keep the EPIRB in the ditch bag. There is one problem with this approach – you have to be careful not to get the unit wet. EPIRBs activate when they get wet, unless they are secured in their mount.
An alternative to a full-size EPIRB is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). A PLB is similar to an EPIRB, but has approximately half the battery life (24 versus 48 hours at -40 degrees F), and must be manually activated. On the other hand, they are considerably cheaper (approximately $250 – $360), and much smaller. Because of their small size, they can be worn on a life vest. If we did not already have a full-size EPIRB, we would get one of these units, and keep it clipped to our SOSpenders life vest (which we wear all the time).
As you might expect, other solutions have been developed. One of the most popular options has been the integration of GPS emergency beacons with satellite phones or messaging units (see the earlier mentions under “Being Heard”). These devices leverage their carrier’s underlying satellite network to transmit an emergency message to friends/family and (for a fee) to a private emergency services company (GEOS Alliance).
For a nominal annual fee, the GEOS Alliance will monitor your device and notify the appropriate authorities in the event of emergency. They also offer additional insurance plans that will help pay for the costs of any Search and Rescue efforts (you didn’t think any of that was free, did you?)
These units used to have quite a purchase price advantage over EPIRBs, but the cost of their service plans pretty much canceled out that differential. With the radical drop in EPIRB and PLB pricing, the overall price advantage shifts to EPIRBs and PLBs, if you are interested primarily in a safety beacon.
Regardless of which way you decide to go, a satellite beacon of some sort is definitely worth the money. If you can pony up the extra cash, an EPIRB or PLB is still probably the best overall solution for an emergency beacon offshore.