Boat Accessories


“Emergency Beacon and Flotation Devices Save Two off Miami Beach”* read the headline of a recent press release sent in October by the U.S. Coast Guard. It continued, “A personal locator beacon (PLB), life jacket and an inflatable cushion likely saved the lives of two people who were rescued by a Coast Guard aircrew after their boat sank, stranding them in the Atlantic Ocean…”

The unfortunate situation developed when a 22-foot catamaran in distress sank out from under two people who were boating off Florida’s East Coast.

Fortunately, an emergency signal broadcast by the PLB they had with them quickly alerted the Coast Guard command center in Miami of the problem and the exact location of the people in the water, who were kept afloat by the PFDs they were wearing. A Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter was immediately dispatched and, by tracking the emergency beacon, the members of the Coast Guard were on the scene in a matter of minutes to safely rescue the stranded survivors.

Capt. George Mitchell of Jupiter, Florida, shows two important Emergency Beacon Locators always on board – the EPIRB in the lower left corner of his ditch bag and a SPOT(TM) satellite tracker he keeps on the key ring at the helm.

Not all emergency situations at sea end with the prompt rescue of the passengers on board. Having personal floatation devices aboard is not only smart, but also required by law. It’s even smarter to wear them, rather than keeping them stowed away until an emergency situation is imminent. However, it’s important to remember that PFDs do not guarantee you will be found once you’re in the water away from the boat. The ocean is vast, and it is very difficult to spot a person floating in the waves from the air or from the water, especially if conditions are rough. That’s why all boaters should have some type of emergency locator beacon or satellite communicator aboard the boat every time they are on the water.

An automatic-deploying EPIRB mounts inconspicuously on the hardtop of most boats and releases and activates hydrostatically should a boat sink. It can also be activated manually.

Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon

In years past, the only type of emergency beacon available for maritime use was an EPIRB. They were large, expensive and required frequent servicing, which put them out of reach of most small boat owners. Their use was mandated for vessels carrying people for hire, but not for private recreational vessels. However, in recent years technology has brought the price of a hydrostatically deployed EPIRB under $600, which means putting one on larger recreational boats is pretty much a given. These new generation models can be placed on a center console’s T-top or a cruisers hard top, where they are out of the way and the battery packs do not require replacement or servicing for up to five years. They are housed in a hard shell container that releases them when a vessel is submerged, reaching a depth of three to 10 feet. The EPIRB is activated automatically when it is released from its container and transmits an emergency signal on 406 MHz, which is monitored by the Coast Guard in domestic waters and other emergency responders outside the U.S. Should a boater need assistance outside of radio range while the boat is still afloat, the EPIRB it can be activated manually.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), like the one pictured above, are getting smaller, easier to use and more affordable, so every boater should have one.

Personal Locator Beacon

For owners of smaller boats and for individual use, there is a newer emergency locator option similar one used by the boaters mentioned in the Coast Guard press story. It’s called a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), a device about the size of a small hand-held VHF radio that can be carried on your person or kept in a convenient spot aboard the boat should trouble arise. The PLB has to be activated manually and broadcasts an emergency signal on 406 MHz like an EPIRB. It also sends a second homing signal on 121.5 MHz. Many models also incorporate an internal GPS unit that broadcasts the unit’s position with accuracy within 100 feet. This greatly enhances the chances you will be found quickly by the Coast Guard or other responders. Most PLBs have batteries with a life span of five-to-six years so they require little or no maintenance. They can be used both on and off the water, so they are also useful if you’re hiking, skiing or camping in remote areas. They have a battery check feature and a self-test mode to ensure they are operational. There are PLB devices available through your local marine supply store or online that retail for as little as $250.

Satellite Tracker/Communicator

The latest in emergency locator technology is the satellite tracker/communicator. Like PLBs, this device can be used on a boat or on land in remote locations. It can serve several functions depending on the model purchased, and much like a cell phone, a subscription plan accompanies the unit with a service charge that can range from $10 to $50 per month, depending on the level of service required. The basic units can be set up to track your location at pre-selected intervals, and that information is available to people on a list you give to the service provider. These satellite units also have a 911 or SOS feature that can be activated should you encounter an emergency situation. When activated, this feature transmits the unit’s location to the GEOS 24/7 search and rescue monitoring center, which then contacts the appropriate search and rescue organization and directs them to your location. In the case of a boater, that would be the Coast Guard.

New satellite trackers, like this Spot(TM) Gen3 Satellite Messenger Personal Tracker, is small enough to put on your keychain and is a powerful emergency rescue tool should you ever need one.

These units are very compact, battery-operated, and most are rechargeable. They are also affordable, with the basic units carrying a suggested retail price of under $150. There are more expensive units that have greater capabilities like satellite text messaging and even phone service.

It’s up to you to determine the type of emergency beacon that fits your boating needs, but one thing remains certain—having an emergency beacon aboard your boat, in your ditch bag or on your person can increase the odds of surviving an emergency at sea or on any large body of water. Safe boating is everyone’s responsibility.


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