Anyone who has voyaged offshore has had this nightmare: the boat is sailing fast on a black night when you notice someone is missing from the cockpit. Or maybe it’s you, gasping for air as you bob up behind a rapidly disappearing stern. It does happen, and even to the most experienced sailors. Eric Tabarly, the famous French long-distance racer, was knocked overboard by a swinging gaff as he prepared to set a trysail. He was not wearing a life jacket and his crew was unable to find him in the lumpy seas. Without a working radio it took some time to contact help, which eventually included another yacht and professional rescue services. Five weeks later a fishing trawler discovered his body.
Despite grim stories and thoughts like these, boating is a pretty safe endeavor. According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2006 Boating Statistics (the most current edition available at this writing), there were only 51 fatalities in boats between 26 and 65 feet in 2006 in the United States, and for all auxiliary sailboats there were only nine. However, in both those categories drowning was the single greatest cause of death.
Apparently, if you can stay on board your voyaging boat you reduce your chances of drowning and in turn reduce your chances of becoming a statistic. The primary safety device must be a safety harness in all cases, keeping you on board. Even some of those who fell in wearing life jackets still drowned, but flotation must be considered the second line of defense. However, a bobbing person, floating comfortably in a personal floatation device (PFD) is not a saved person, so the third line of defense must be a system to retrieve that crewmember, and the first step in the process is to locate the victim.
Various manufacturers have begun to combine the position-fixing ability of GPS with the global communication power of satellites and homing capabilities to create a new generation of small, personal locator beacons, known as PLBs. The most sophisticated of these devices are 406 MHz EPIRBs designed to be much smaller than the bulky devices used as emergency beacons for an entire vessel. The majority of the reduction in size is achieved by shrinking the battery pack and its sophistication. International regulatory specs call for a minimum broadcast time (at cold temperatures) that is only 24 hours, as compared to 48 hours for the larger units, though some of the latest units, like ACR Electronics’ ResQFix is said to have a life of more than 40 hours in cold tests. In warmer climates these times should be greatly extended due to better battery performance.
These units are eminently pocketable with a decent foul weather jacket or a safety harness/PFD with a storage pouch. Because of the ResQFix’s small size (1.25-by-5.81-by-2.31 inches, 10.4 ounces) the body of the unit doesn’t have enough volume to float without the included flotation pouch that is equipped with a lanyard. Naturally, the units are waterproof and can be submerged — in the case of the ResQFix, to a depth of 33 feet.
McMurdo makes the Fastfind Plus PLB that is also very compact and includes the obligatory 121.5 MHz homing frequency, as does the ResQFix, which allows search and rescue craft to radio-direction find your position. As with all EPIRBs, big and small, an initial alert (with a GPS position included on the advanced units) is sent to a COSPAS-SARSAT satellite or a GOES weather satellite. The data is then forwarded to a shore station, first the U.S. Coast Guard and then possibly another government rescue service, that calls your registered emergency contacts and then initiates the search if it is determined that the signal is not a false alarm. It may take some time to reach a victim depending on the victim’s location. Once switched on it may take several minutes for the internal GPS to get a fix, but the devices are designed to send out the alert even if a GPS fix is not available, which has been the case in some independent testing of units in real-world conditions. To make all of this work properly, users must first register their beacons so a particular unit can be identified as coming from a particular craft (see sidebar for Web address).
The final approach by rescue craft is aided by homing in on the 121.5 MHz beacon. This is where the shortened battery life of PLBs could pose a problem for someone drifting around out in the Pacific, thousands of miles from help. For this reason, a PLB should not be viewed as a cheaper and easier-to-stow substitute for a full-sized EPIRB. A further advantage of the larger units is their ability to float, and therefore continue to transmit a position even if the vessel sinks and/or the beacon becomes separated from the crew. There are beacons designed to automatically float free and begin transmitting.
Obviously, one can’t wait for days when someone has fallen overboard, so manufacturers are also selling radio direction finding (RDF) devices that can be carried on board. Some of these units are similar to RDFs that us ancient mariners remember using for navigation prior to the advent of loran and GPS. Costs range from around $1,400 to $3,500 for the RDFs, with PLBs running around the $550 to $650 range at retail, so an entire set up for a four- or six-person crew starts to add up.
This sticker shock may prompt some to take a close look at the new Spot satellite messenger, which is not an EPIRB, though it does supply an emergency notification capability and a GPS position via satellite. Spot, Inc. is a subsidiary of Globalstar, the company that provides satellite telephone service that can be accessed with handheld telephones, as well as other commercial satellite messaging and tracking services. The Spot system utilizes a different part of the Globalstar spectrum than the familiar telephones do — one that the company claims is 99.4 percent reliable and processes six million messages a day. A recent press release from Globalstar indicates that the company has recently secured $150 million in additional funding to improve and upgrade its satellites.
The Spot device is small, pocketable and looks like it could be a PLB, but it isn’t. The unit does have GPS positioning capabilities and can communicate via the Globalstar satellites. There are four main functions: alert 911, ask for help, check in, and track progress. These functions are controlled and monitored by four buttons and four LED lights.
Based on your personal preferences, you can choose to punch the 911 button or the help button to alert the GEOS International Emergency Response Center, which will contact the appropriate rescue or law enforcement services, or a particular contact, if you are in trouble. GEOS is a non-governmental organization providing a variety of communication, safety and security services to travelers. One advantage of Spot over a PLB is extended battery life — up to seven days in 911 mode. Unlike some PLBs, the device floats, though apparently not in an altitude that would allow for transmission of its signal.
One disadvantage of Spot is its lack of worldwide coverage, particularly over many open ocean areas. For this reason, Spot is more interesting for coastal cruisers and land explorers within the Globalstar range.
SpotChecking is a function that allows you to send your GPS location to friends and family via text messages or email. Along with the email comes a link to Google Maps showing your exact location. SpotCasting sends your location to your Spot account every 10 minutes and tracks your progress with Google Maps, and you can let others have access to your account in order to follow your progress.
The company has managed to keep the initial list price for the transmitter at only $170, with a standard subscription for service costing $99 per year. The SpotCasting tracking function costs an additional $50 per year. For an additional $8 per year, you can subscribe for up to $100,000 in supplemental search and rescue services from GEOS that may include things like helicopter use. You can obtain this extra GEOS coverage for other family members for $8 each, but they must be traveling with a Spot unit. GEOS says that this service is underwritten by Lloyd’s of London.
Spot or not?
Some voyagers might question the usefulness of Spot, even if you assume all the services operate as Globalstar claims, and that you are willing to trust your life to a non-governmental rescue organization like GEOS. If you are ocean voyaging, the device would be of little use offshore, and some remote coastal areas, like South Africa, aren’t covered. In many popular coastal cruising areas, cell phones are quite usable at a fraction of the cost and they provide many other functions. Stick one in a zip lock bag and it’s waterproof. They easily fit into a coat pocket. In most other coastal cruising areas there will be other boaters within marine VHF range, and there will almost always be someone within SSB earshot. Many handheld VHFs are waterproof and are just as small as PLBs and the Spot.
Spot also seems to have disadvantages as a man overboard device, even within its coverage area, because it is lacking the critical homing function of a PLB. However, a GPS position can be enough to locate a person, as long as it is relatively current. That information would have to be sent from GEOS to those searching for the victim. The company does seem to be focusing on the broader terrestrial market, having made its debut at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in August 2007. There is also the question of the lack of any international maritime authority oversight for its manufacturing specifications, performance or communication system.
Standard and personal EPIRBs remain the gold standard for maritime emergency use at this time. However, the Spot is a neat gadget that does some unique things at a price point that may make it very useful for certain applications.
Can you hear me now?
If worldwide portable communication is your goal, with the added benefit of emergency use, the Iridium and Globalstar phone systems are good supplements to marine EPIRBs and good alternatives or backups to marine VHF and SSB radios. There are handheld handsets, about the size of a large handheld VHF radio, that can be inserted in waterproof cases to offer additional emergency communications benefits, though it is unlikely many will tie one to a life jacket. Iridium remains somewhat more costly, while providing true worldwide coverage, even in the middle of the ocean. Globalstar is cheaper and offers less coverage. Reception issues have been noted by some boaters, but the company claims its cash infusion mentioned above will soon right those problems.
One of the unbeatable virtues of either phone system, over EPIRBs and Spot, is the ability to communicate verbally with emergency personnel. For example, what if your engine has conked out in the middle of the Pacific and you just need some mechanical advice, not a rescue? I had to use my Iridium phone to order a needed prescription for my daughter while we were located in the remote San Blas Islands of Panama. Another time I needed to call for an emergency infusion of cash into my bank account. In addition, with the proper connectors, software and the use of a PC, many great data services can be accessed like email, news feeds and weather broadcasts. Many of these functions can also be done via Ham and SSB radios, but the former doesn’t allow any sort of business use and both systems take some expertise to set up and use. And, satphones provide great backups in the case of a sailboat losing its mast and therefore its SSB or Ham antenna.
It is not an either-or proposition in an emergency. If your boat is sinking, set off your big EPIRB, and then climb into the life raft with your PLB, satphone, and handheld VHF radio to maintain communications with rescue personnel. If someone is over the side you might be able to retrieve them with an RDF and the PLB, or you might need to call for backup using your VHF radio, Ham, SSB, or satphone.
Iridium and McMurdo have deployed a somewhat Spot-like system, called the MOB Guardian, for commercial fishermen in the U.K. The system consists of a device that is kept in the wheelhouse of fishing boats and a group of small transmitters worn around the necks of the crew. If a fisherman falls overboard he or she can activate the device, which will then send a signal with his or her location to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) Operations Centre and the 230 RNLI lifeboat locations around the U.K. The device will also self-activate if it is submerged in water. The European Union is subsidizing the cost of the devices to the fishermen. Plans are to approach other governments with the product if the initial rollout works out. It’s obvious that this type of system could have pleasure boat applications as well.
While it is desirable to not fall overboard or sink in the first place, the best-laid plans do go wrong. With safety, the old belt and braces approach seems to be the best, and an ever-growing variety of electronic emergency communication devices point to a future where we will always be connected to the Net, even when we’re all wet.
John Kettlewell is the author of The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk to Miami, and The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Miami to Mobile. He and his family recently completed a 7,000-mile cruise from New England to the southwest Caribbean and back. John is currently working as the publications and marketing director of the Adirondack Mountain Club. You can read more of his thoughts at www.kettlewellcruising.blogspot.com.