Personal Locator Beacons

Necessary or Not?

Randy Boone December 8, 2009

Heading offshore in pursuit of angling glory, even on a seemingly calm day can entail risks that may lead to a life-threatening situation. And while your experience on the water and onboard safety equipment may offer you peace of mind, the precise emergecy features you choose to utilize may be providing nothing more than a false sense of security.

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Photo: Mcmurdo

Unless you’re new to offshore boating you’ve likely heard about EPIRBs, as these essential safety devices have been saving lives for decades. A recent tragedy involving four unfortunate football players has prompted many boaters to go out and purchase safety and survival supplies. If you’re not familiar with recent headlines, while bottom fishing at anchor their vessel was hit by a rogue wave and unexpectedly overturned. Many feel that an EPIRB could have saved their lives, but in my professional opinion I feel that an EPIRB probably wouldn’t have done them much good.

First things first. A category 1 EPIRB equipped with a hydrostatic release requires at least 13-feet of submersion to activate the release function. It is very unlikely that their 21-foot center console had a mounting location that would reach 13-feet in an overturning. Because the most common area to mount an EPIRB on a small boat is on the console, even if their EPIRB did release it would simply float up to the floor of the overturned boat and remain trapped in this position. From results of lab tests and the instructions contained within the EPIRB, it is highly unlikely that the signal would be powerful enough to penetrate the thick fiberglass hull and transmit with enough power to alert a satellite.

If the vessel was outfitted with a category 2 EPIRB, where manual activation is necessary, it would have had to be retrieved by swimming under the overturned boat. The only problem with this is the likeliness of becoming snagged by the many obstacles floating or attached to the topside of the vessel. Even Coast Guard rescue swimmers are under strict orders to never swim under an overturned vessel for this very reason.

By having a Personal Locater Beacon (PLB) on your person, attached to your belt, in your pocket, or attached to your life vest, it is with you no matter where you are. Some critics may question the ability of a PLB compared to a much larger EPIRB. However, they both transmit 5-watts of power, they both alternate 406MHz and 121.5MHz and they are both designed to communicate with passing satellites.

That being said, perhaps an EPIRB is not a saving grace under some or most conditions with small to mid-size center consoles. Not that an EPRIB isn’t an essential safety feature that every offshore angler should have in his arsenal, but an EPRIB alone isn’t always enough. This is where PLBs come into play. The primary difference between EPIRBs and PLBs is that EPIRBs are designed to be mounted in a bracket or carried in a ditch bag. PLBs are designed to be worn or carried on you at all times. Similar to EPIRBs, PLBs utilize transmit bursts of digital distress information to orbiting Cospas-Sarsat satellites.

Although many PLBs are designed to float, don’t let this fool you. Just because a PLB floats does not mean it will remain upright or that the antenna will remain above the waterline. By submersing the antenna, no matter how deep, it cuts the signal transmission to a point where it will not reach the satellite. With this in mind, you have a choice. Either hold it up in the air, or attach it to the highest point on you. Coast Guard helicopter crews afix a piece of Velcro to the topside of their helmets where they stick the PLB. Since it’s unlikely that you’ll be donning a helmet, you can attach a piece of Velcro to the bladder area on your life vest. Most PLBs come with an attachment line with a small halyard type clip on the end. This attachment line should be used as a backup in case the PLB breaks loose from the Velcro in heavy seas.

I know of too many boaters that keep their PLB in a secured location, like in a drawer. This only causes you to deal with one more obstacle in an emergency situation. If the PLB is already attached to your life vest, assuming you are wearing a life vest, you will have both hands free for an emergency egress. Once you find yourself in the water, if need be inflate the life vest, pull the PLB out, activate it, and place it on the Velcro on the bladder, Make sure the backup lanyard is attached to the vest.

Mcmurdo Fast Find 210

Weighing only 5.3 oz. the GPS enabled Mcmurdo Fast Find 210 offers the same advanced digital technology that’s found in advanced EPIRBs, but in a much smaller package. Offering positional accuracy up to 62-meters, new position updates every 20-minutes, a 50 channel GPS and a unique flashing SOS LED light, it’s quite user-friendly. Equip yourself with a GPS enabled PLB and you will be found fast.

How Prepared Are You?

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 2007 there were 398 accidents from boats capsizing causing 204 deaths and 284 injuries. Boat capsizing is one of the leading boating accidents, which is why safety gear stashed in a console or under a hatch won’t be of any help during an unexpected overturning. Survival specialists are designing user-friendly, comfortable and fashionable life vests in the hopes boaters start wearing them, not stowing them.

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