Mikele D’Arcangelo has lost count of how many times he’s watched wives punch their husbands at boat shows. D’Arcangelo joined ACR Electronics in 2003 and has stood in the company’s booth for countless hours, explaining to boaters why it’s smart to buy an EPIRB.
Today, as vice president of global marketing and product management, he’s all too familiar with statistics like the one in the most recent Coast Guard National Recreational Boating Survey. It states that only about one-third of boats operating more than three nautical miles from shore have an EPIRB on board.
Usually, when he makes his boat-show sales pitch, it’s to a group of guys. D’Arcangelo tries to talk to them about an EPIRB in the $400 to $650 price range, but they almost immediately start thinking about other ways they could spend that money. “Within like two minutes, maybe 30 seconds of trying to explain what an EPIRB is, those four guys are now looking over my shoulder at the Garmin booth next to us and all the displays lit up, or they’re looking at a girl walking by — whatever. They’ve checked out,” D’Arcangelo says. “Now, if even one of those guys came back and brought his wife with him, well, he’s probably still going to have his eyes glaze over, but his wife is locked in. She’s asking the best questions of the day. She wants to know exactly how it works. Usually, he gets punched in the arm, and she says, ‘You have one of these, right?’ ”
Multiple EPIRB makers say safety has always been an easier sell with women (especially moms), but EPIRB sales pitches face additional challenges in the Internet of Things, connected-boat era. By design, an EPIRB is a standalone piece of equipment built to work even if every other system on a boat fails. It’s built to work even if it’s the only thing left after a boat sinks. At a time when consumers are shopping for integrated equipment that can do five things at once, an EPIRB’s selling points can sound almost backward.
“They want the lifesaving benefits of a beacon combined with the hobby of a mobile phone,” says Sean McCrystal, senior maritime marketing manager for Orolia, which sells McMurdo EPIRBs in the United States and the Kannad brand in Canada. “Because of the battery and power requirements, the frequency requirements, it’s not even on the horizon that they will be combined. Certainly not in the next 10 years.”
The real rub, McCrystal says, is that EPIRB technology actually has evolved “massively.” Original beacon technology dates to 1982, when the COSPAS-SARSAT system of search-and-rescue satellites was set up. Beacons that sent signals to that system stayed the same until 1998, when 406 MHz EPIRBs with integrated GPS became available. The search-and-rescue technology didn’t evolve again, McCrystal says, until a couple of years ago, with newer satellites able to communicate with globally updated ground-station antennas.
“That has resulted in new location satellites called Galileo, which are the European equivalent of GPS, and that led to Return Link, which means we can send a return signal to the beacon that says, ‘We know where you are.’ That was turned on in 2020.”
Right now, the Return Link Service works in the United States but isn’t authorized for use here. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is accepting public comments through June 1 (see accompanying story) on whether Return Link should be authorized as an optional feature on EPRIBs. McCrystal says he hopes the answer will be yes later this year, because from what he has seen across the pond, Return Link affects boaters’ opinions about EPIRBs being a smart purchase.
“Most people now are coming back to us and saying, ‘Yes, that changes my view of the technology,’ ” he says. “We’re selling it like that now in Europe, and we’re waiting for the U.S. to approve it.”
Also helping with EPIRB sales pitches, McCrystal says, is letting boaters know the modern search-and-rescue system works a whole lot faster than it did a few decades ago. “When the beacons were first set up, and in the 1990s and 2000s, the statistics were that it took 90 minutes for someone in the search-and-rescue community to pick up your signal. Then they had to find you and get boats and planes to you,” he says. “When we tested our beacon last year, we expected that to improve, but they can now pick up your signal and your location within three-and-a-half minutes. The Return Link signal is another 10 or 15 minutes after that.”
Even with that kind of next-generation sales pitch, many consumers will still forgo an EPIRB purchase because boating is inherently so safe, according to Chris Edmonston, president of the BoatUS Foundation. He says that statistically speaking, based on Coast Guard data, a person would have to go boating 24 hours day for 1,900 years before experiencing a risk of dying. “When people get the sense of that risk factor,” Edmonston says, “it’s hard to sell safety.”
And most boat dealers don’t even want to make the safety pitch during the sales process, D’Arcangelo says. While a potential buyer might be fine discussing gear that’s more familiar, such as a life jacket, discussing EPIRBs in the context of a potentially catastrophic event at sea is a whole other level of unwelcome conversation.
“Every boat dealer we’ve talked to, to try and get a program going, with the exception of two involving personal locator beacons, most of them are like, ‘Are you kidding me? You want me to tell a husband and wife about to drop $400,000 on a center console that the boat might sink and they need this EPIRB? I’m not going to talk about that during the sale process,’ ” D’Arcangelo says.
Going forward, he says, ACR Electronics is trying to tap into such organizations as Freedom Boat Club, where many new boaters are learning about on-board equipment for the first time. The hope is that if newcomers to the sport are educated about EPIRBs, they’ll realize the equipment’s importance should they become boat owners in the future.
“We’re starting elementary marketing campaigns now for the boat clubs, to tell people, ‘This is an EPIRB,’ ” D’Arcangelo says. “It’s like when you were younger and every school had an Apple computer, they were trying to teach kids on Apples so we’d all become Apple users. I’m not trying to sell a boat-club member an EPIRB. But if you decide to buy a boat, we want you to be one of our EPIRB guys.”