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Do you need an EPIRB on your Sailing Vessel?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” This is an adage that any experienced sailor will hold close to his heart. Preparation is the key to any successful adventure, be it on sea, air, or land. However, sometimes, the best of plans can fail, especially when you are pitting yourself against the forces of Mother Nature. A friend of mine was on a cargo ship once, crossing the North Atlantic, in the winter months. The weather, as usual, was bad, with Beaufort Force 8 winds and 7 meter seas. They were miles away from any land or other vessels when they picked up a faint distress call on the VHF. There was just one call for help, with coordinates, and then nothing more was heard. They turned the ship and headed for the coordinates that they had received, all the while trying to contact any ships in the vicinity. There was no one else around. Once they had reached the coordinates, it took them two hours of searching before they actually located the sailing vessel. It took them another two hours to get the four sailors off of the foundering vessel and onto their ship. Their sailing vessel had capsized two days ago due to the rough weather, and they had lost all their supplies and equipment, except for a portable VHF radio and a handheld GPS unit. Although they had managed to right their yacht, they were adrift without power or supplies. It was sheer stroke of luck that my friends ship was within range of their portable VHF unit, which too was on its last legs. Why am I telling you this story? It is because if that yacht been equipped with a critical piece of equipment, the odds of their distress call being received would have increased exponentially. That equipment is an EPIRB, or Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon.

What is an EPIRB?

An EPIRB is a device that is used to alert Search and Rescue (SAR) facilities of the position of a vessel in distress. EPIRBs are mandatory on large sea-going ships and are an integral component of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). Most EPIRBs work on the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system and transmit on a frequency of 406 MHz. This signal is picked up by the COSPAS-SARSAT satellites and transmitted to the nearest SAR facilities. In addition, some EPIRB units may also transmit an additional signal on 121.5 MHz, which acts as a homing beacon for aircrafts searching in the vicinity. EPIRB signals provide the SAR services with continuous alerting in the event of activation, to a positional accuracy of approximately three nautical miles. EPIRBs are required to have a battery life of at least 48 hours. They can be activated manually or automatically when they come in contact with water. They can also be paired with a Hydrostatic Release Unit, which results in automatic release and activation of the signal when it is submerged under water.

Since the inception of the COSPAS-SARSAT system in 1982, EPIRBs have resulted in the rescue of more than 28,000 people.

Types of EPIRBs

There are many different types of EPIRBs and Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) that are designed for use by ships and boats. Let us take a look at some of them. EPIRB: Traditional EPIRBs are mandatory on large sea-going ships. They have to comply with certain standards set down by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Although these are the most expensive types of distress beacons, they are also the most commonly used and have the longest battery life. GPIRB: Many modern EPIRBs come fitted with a GPS unit that further increases the positional accuracy of the data that is transmitted to SAR services. The increased cost of a GPIRB unit is offset by the fact that the greater positional accuracy allows for faster location of the vessel in distress.

PLB: Personal Locator Beacons have many of the same features that are found in EPIRBs. They also rely on the COSPAS-SARSAT system for distress alerting and may additionally be fitted with a 121.5 MHz transmitter and a GPS unit. The basic difference between EPIRBs and PLBs is that while EPIRBs are registered to a particular ship or boat, PLBs are registered to a particular person. Thus, you can take your PLB with you on any craft that you are sailing on. Additionally, because they are designed for personal use, PLBs are usually smaller in size as compared to EPIRBs, and some units may even feature battery life that is comparable to EPIRBs.

AIS Beacons: AIS beacons provide distress alerting by using the Automatic Identification System (AIS). These are ideal when you are venturing only in waters where you know you will be always in range of a ship or shore station that is fitted with AIS.

Choosing the right EPIRB

Having an automatic emergency alerting beacon on your sailing vessel is the smartest decision that you can make. It may seem like a needless investment at first, but if you are ever in distress, it could literally mean the difference between life and death. However, since there are so many options to choose from, which kind of emergency beacon should you opt for? There are three criteria that you need to consider when selecting an EPIRB for your sailing vessel. Legal requirements: Depending on the size of your sailing vessel and whether or not it is fitted with a motor, you may be legally required to carry an EPIRB, or may be able to sail with only a PLB or AIS Beacon. You should check with your national maritime authority for the exact requirements that are applicable to your craft. Sailing area: The next important criteria is to ensure that your distress signal will be picked up by nearby ships and SAR facilities. For example, AIS Beacons operate on VHF radio signals, and therefore, can only be picked up if you are sailing in an area where there are ships or other facilities fitted with AIS within VHF range. This could vary between 5 to 30 miles, depending on the height of the AIS unit above sea level and the prevailing atmospheric conditions. EPIRBs and PLBs that work on the COSPAS-SARSAT system, on the other hand, provide global coverage. Budget: Last but not the least, your budget will also determine which sort of distress beacon you can afford. Professional EPIRBs with inbuilt GPs units are usually the most expensive option, while handheld AIS Beacons are the cheapest.

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