When bad things occur offshore, they usually happen fast. And if you find yourself in the water without any method of calling for help, you might have to wait until someone notices you are missing.
If no float plan was filed, rescuers have to guess where you might be. Depending on the elapsed time, search grids can comprise 10,000 square miles or more, with rescue crews looking for the proverbial needle.
For a few hundred dollars, boaters can buy these compact devices that dramatically improve their chances of a timely rescue.
EPIRBs are the gold standard for devices that can initiate and direct a rescue operation, and are required for all commercial vessels that carry more than six passengers. EPIRBs are registered to the vessel they reside on and have a minimum 48-hour run time when activated. The batteries have a shelf life of around 10 years.
They transmit a 406 MHz frequency signal that’s received by Cospas-Sarsat search and rescue satellites, which calculate a boat’s position via GPS, triangulation or a combination of the two. These coordinates are forwarded to the nearest search-and-rescue location, which will dispatch a team. When a rescue boat, helicopter or airplane gets in the vicinity of the boat, it follows a 121.5 MHz beacon sent by the EPIRB.
The latest from Ocean Signal, the SafeSea EPIRB1 Pro ($550), is 30 percent smaller than standard EPIRBs. It can deploy automatically when submerged in at least 4.9 feet of water, or can be armed manually.
Personal Locator Beacons
A personal locator beacon uses the same government satellite network and frequencies as an EPIRB but is more compact, less expensive and registered to a person, rather than a vessel. That last distinction makes these devices more versatile, as they can be worn on a PFD or kept in a pocket.
Personal locator beacons have smaller batteries than EPIRBs and aren’t required to float. They are required to have batteries that will operate continuously for at least 24 hours. They also can be used when venturing to places on land without cellphone service. Most have a battery shelf life of at least five years.
Some, like the ACR ResQLink View ($350), float and have integrated GPS to help pinpoint the user’s location. There’s also an LCD that lets the user know the status of the beacon — it clearly says “sent” when information is transmitted — and the device’s battery state. A multifunction clip allows for three ways to secure the device, which won the 2020 National Marine Manufacturers Association Innovation Award for Consumer Safety Equipment.
One downside of EPIRBs and personal locator beacons is that they are for emergencies only; pressing the red button sends a signal that an immediate rescue is needed. There’s no way to explain the nature of an emergency, and there’s less than a minute to stop an accidental signal.
A satellite communicator, by contrast, allows the user to text from virtually anywhere in the world. There is an SOS hailing function for emergencies, but on many models, the user can also include specific information such as, “We’re safe but need a tow.”
The smallest satellite communicator is the Garmin inReach Mini ($350), which weighs 3.5 ounces and interfaces via Bluetooth with a smartphone for easier typing and reading of text messages. The inReach Mini requires a subscription to the Iridium NEXT satellite network. Subscription prices range from $12 for a limited yearly plan to $65 for a monthly unlimited Expedition plan that drops an electronic bread crumb every 2 minutes (rather than every 10 minutes, as with the recreational service).
Other communicators, such as the SPOT X ($199), employ the Globalstar satellite network. The device has a QWERTY keyboard for easy typing. Both subscriptions require a $25 activation fee.
When a person falls overboard in even moderate seas, he can vanish in seconds if visual contact is lost. Mercury Marine’s 1st Mate (starting at $570) lets the captain and as many as seven guests wear personal signalers around the wrist or neck. The devices transmit FELL Marine’s WiMEA wireless signal to a hub mounted on the boat. The hub then sounds an audible alarm and sends a Bluetooth signal with the GPS coordinates to smartphones that have the 1st Mate app, or to land-based assets via cellphone, which is useful if an operator is alone.
The captain’s device also acts as a kill switch. If the signal is broken when the device is submerged, the device stops the boat’s engine. In the event that no one on board knows how to operate the boat, the app can coach passengers on how to start the engines, engage the gears and maneuver to pick up the skipper.
The device can also be used as a theft deterrent to disable the engines. Currently, these features only work with SmartCraft-compatible Mercury engines, but later this year, 1st Mate should be able to interface with other engine brands.
Another device used to detect and direct the driver to a man overboard is Ocean Signal’s rescueME MOB1 ($290), which weighs 3.2 ounces. It can be attached to an inflatable life jacket and can be set up to self-deploy when a vest self-inflates.
The rescueME MOB1 transmits an AIS signal that can be received by a AIS-equipped VHF radio — such as the Standard Horizon GX2200 Matrix AIS/GPS VHF ($300). These radios have a display that shows the MOB’s location in relation to the boat.
The MOB1 can also send a distress call via the radio’s Digital Selective Calling feature that broadcasts the wearer’s MOB status and GPS location to all surrounding AIS-equipped boats, Coast Guard stations and private, land-based monitoring stations.
The advantage of this device is that it transmits via VHF radio waves, so any AIS-equipped vessel that gets this signal is likely in a position to render aid swiftly.
This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue.