Boat Accessories

Boat Signaling Gear – Calling For Help In The Modern Era

Is your boat’s safety gear up to snuff? If you don’t have at least one of these signaling items aboard, the answer is a solid “no”.

Boat safety equipment is a serious matter, and in this day and age, it’s easy and affordable to raise the safety bar well above minimum requirements. How? Start with the basics, like getting a courtesy vessel safety check, and taking a look at some basic boating safety tips.

Then take safety to the next level by harnessing the best signaling gear that modern technology has to offer.

boat signaling
EPIRBs aren’t new – in fact, they’re the old stand-by for sending out an SOS in an emergency – but they’re still a top signaling device for mariners.

EPIRBs – Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are the gold standard in signaling for help, and have been for years. Activated either automatically (category 1) or manually (category 2) they transmit distress signals including your exact location and the boat’s identity, via satellite, to search and rescue personnel. Individual EPIRBs are registered to individual vessels. Many also have built-in GPS (which significantly increases location accuracy), strobes, and other features to assist with signaling for help. Their biggest drawback is the price, which starts at around $400 and goes up to over $1,000. However, EPIRBS can be rented in some cases, with your vessel information temporarily registered with NOAA and the Coast Guard.

boat signaling
PLBs are smaller and less expensive than EPIRBs and can be worn on a life jacket or tucked in a pocket, but still ensure an emergency distress signal goes through.

PLBs – Personal Locator Beacons are essentially mini-EPIRBs that are registered with a person, rather than a vessel. They’re more compact, less expensive (prices start at around $250), and can be transported between different boats or worn on a life vest. However, they have a shorter battery life and often have fewer features than an EPIRB. Not all models float, and they may need to be held in an upright position for their signals to go through.

boat signaling
Satellite messengers have exploded in popularity in recent years, and have capabilities that may go beyond just emergency signaling.

Satellite Messengers – One of the newer forms of safety tech is the satellite messenger. First made popular by the SPOT and then quickly followed by the DeLorme InReach (now a Garmin product), satellite messengers bounce text messages off the satellites overhead to get your communications through. Basic versions merely have an SOS button and the ability to send a few pre-programmed messages, while more advanced models let you tap out a text and send it just about anywhere at any time. They’re also a very inexpensive signaling option, starting at around $150 and ranging up to $400. Note, however, that they also require monthly subscription plans (which start at around $12/month).

boat signaling
VHF radios are probably the most common method of calling for help, and with active DSC, the Coast Guard knows exactly who and where you are the moment the transmission goes through.

DSC – Your VHF radio has always been, and continues to be, the first and best method of instantly calling the Coast Guard for help. And all modern VHFs are required to be capable of Digital Selective Calling (DSC). DSC attaches your GPS location and the boat’s identity to your transmission, automatically, when you hit the panic button. There’s just one hitch: your radio has to either have an internal GPS, or it has to be interfaced with your chartplotter. Making the connection and getting your DSC-equipped VHF hooked up right is incredibly easy – all it takes is attaching two pre-existing wires together and registering for a (free) MMSI identification number online – yet the vast majority of the boats out there don’t have the connection. If you have a modern VHF radio without an internal GPS and you haven’t interfaced with the GPS unit and/or registered for an MMSI number, you’re missing out on the single most important and effective way to boost your safety margin.

BoatUS App

Cell Phone – Although we’ll start by stressing that you cannot ever depend on cell service in a real emergency at sea, there are plenty of cell phone apps for boaters that can come in handy for a safety-boost. Most useful for mariners in need of help is the BoatUS towing app. It makes it fast and easy to call for a tow and provide the dispatchers with your location and basic vessel information upon contact. The US Coast Guard also has its own app, which helps you do everything from file a float plan to request assistance though, in case of emergency, they request an initial contact via VHF rather than cell if possible.

boat signaling
If you ever have an emergency, you want to make sure the coast guard can find you – quickly. All of these signaling devices can help.

Which of these emergency signaling options is best for you? That depends on where and how you do your fishing and boating, but one thing is for sure: everyone out there should have at least two of these options aboard – and more is better. In this day and age equipping for emergency signaling is both easier and less expensive than ever before, so no matter who you are, it’s time to raise the safety bar.

Get more great boating information and tips from Lenny Rudow on BD.

Lenny Rudow
Lenny Rudow …has been a writer and editor in the marine field for over two decades, and has authored seven books. He is currently the Angler in Chie...