If you never venture more than a few miles from land, you may think that your cell phone is all the emergency signaling equipment you need. You would be wrong. Although there have been instances where a phone call has led to a rescue, it is downright stupid to entrust your life to a device that has limited and fickle coverage offshore, doesn’t work when wet, and has batteries that fail at the most inconvenient times.
Nearby boats or ships won’t hear your call to the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard can’t home in on a cell phone signal. Save your phone for keeping in touch with the shoreside world, and spend some money on a proper emergency signaling device.
Of the three boats, Big Bopper would have been the only one likely to carry a satellite phone. These are expensive to use and unless you absolutely have to stay in contact for business or personal reasons, you’re unlikely to bother with one, at least for coastal cruising. The good thing about a satphone is that there are few gaps in coverage these days. The bad? Same as for the cell phone.
Any boat that ventures even a little way offshore should carry a VHF radio (it’s required in Hawaii); a call for assistance on Channel 16 should be overheard by most vessels within range and, if you’re close to shore, by a Coast Guard station. Another benefit of VHF is that SAR aircraft can home in on transmissions, which is not the case with a cell phone.
There’s no excuse for even the smallest of daysailers to go without a VHF; you can pick up a waterproof handheld VHF for under $100, and fixed-mount sets start at around the same price. Handhelds do not have as much range as fixed sets, but they are way better than no VHF at all. Most cruisers carry a handheld as backup to the fixed-mount set.
All new fixed-mount sets have the Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature; if you have first obtained a Maritime Mobile Security Identification (MMSI) number and then linked your GPS to the VHF, a push of the radio’s red ‘distress’ button will send a signal that includes your lat/long along with key information like boat name, size, potential number of crew, and owner’s details. It will keep sending this signal until switched off.
The latest generation of handheld VHFs is exemplified by Standard Horizon’s HX850S, which is DSC-capable and has a built-in GPS receiver, making this technology valid for boats too small to justify a permanently installed VHF set.
SPOT Satellite Messenger
This device isn’t easy to pigeonhole. The SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker uses a constellation of Globalstar satellites to enable its multiple functions. It combines a GPS receiver and basic satellite transmitter in a waterproof, pocket-sized package. Users buy an annual subscription that lets them send a variety of short, pre-programed e-mail and/or text messages, including lat/long information that can be displayed on a Google map link, to a list of friends and/or family. For an extra $50 above the annual $99 subscription, you get a tracking function that lets your loved ones follow your progress. The SPOT has a 911 button that sends a distress signal to one of the company’s permanently manned call centers, which will then alert the appropriate search and rescue organization.
SPOT is careful to point out that the Satellite Messenger does not take the place of a PLB or EPIRB; for one thing, there is no 121.5 homing signal. But the search and rescue organizations are fond of SPOT because precise position information, updated every five minutes, is included in the signal.
PLBs and EPIRBs
EPIRBs (Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons) and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) both send distress signals on the same wavelength (406MHz) to the same satellites; both also transmit short-range homing signals; and both are available with built-in GPS receivers. So what’s the difference, aside from a couple of hundred bucks in price?
The word “personal” gives the game away. Both EPIRBs and PLBs should be registered with NOAA, but an EPIRB is registered to a boat while a PLB is registered to an individual. You can freely take a PLB with you from boat to boat and even take it trekking in the mountains, but you need to tell NOAA if you move an EPIRB on to another boat. You keep a PLB on you, but your EPIRB is mounted in a bracket (either Category I—hydrostatic release, or Category II—manual release). An EPIRB is designed to switch itself on when immersed, whereas a PLB must be switched on manually. While the EPIRB antenna will send a strong, clear signal when afloat, a PLB must be held clear of the water so that its weaker transmission signal is not degraded. An EPIRB’s battery has at least twice the life of a PLB’s—over 48 hours compared to 24 hours—and the former also incorporates a powerful strobe light, while PLBs, due to their smaller battery capacity, typically have no light. Some PLBs and EPIRBs must be hooked up to a GPS to download position information; others have GPS receivers built in. Either way, the position is transmitted to the satellite as soon as the beacon is activated. If yours does not have GPS capability, it can take much longer for the satellites to triangulate your position—up to several hours. The location can be narrowed down to within a couple of miles, and once they are in the vicinity, SAR teams will use the 121.5 signal to home in on you.
To summarize: if you sail within sight of shore at all times, and an EPIRB seems like overkill, by all means buy a SPOT Messenger and/or a PLB (as long as it’s a marine unit—hiking PLBs use a different satellite relay system). If your sailing is more ambitious and includes offshore and overnight passages, there’s no substitute for an EPIRB. If you don’t think you can justify buying one, fear not: you can rent both PLBs and EPIRBs from BoatU.S.
Out with the old
If you have an old-style PLB that transmits on 121.5 MHz and 243 MHz, throw it away. Since February this year, satellites no longer pick up the transmissions from these now-obsolete devices that were responsible for hundreds of false alarms each year. The latest PLBs transmit on 406MHz to a dedicated constellation of COSPAS-SARSAT satellites; signals can also be picked up by aircraft, and by other orbiting satellites. Coverage is worldwide. The only 121.5 beacons now available are short-range units for use with onboard MOB locating devices.
Register that beacon
In the U.S, you’re required by law to register your EPIRB or PLB with NOAA (or call 1-888-212-SAVE). There is also an international database. This is just plain common sense yet people who should know better often neglect to devote ten minutes of their time to updating their information.