Today’s EPIRBs and PLBs use a network of satellites to communicate a distress call to rescuers no matter where you are on Earth.
Ocean cruising can be a dangerous endeavor, so it’s no wonder some people install as much safety protection as money can buy. Emergency position indicating radio beacons (EPIRBs), personal location devices (PLBs), flares and escape pods are among many available products that can save lives when catastrophe strikes.
Determining what is overkill and what is essential probably depends on the size of one’s wallet, but being too safe on the water simply isn’t possible. Secret chambers, mini-subs for quick getaways, tracking devices and military-like security are now common on superyachts.
However, while technology has improved the odds of surviving an accident at sea, it’s not completely safe. A boat owner and his crew may have a decent blueprint about how to create and implement an emergency procedure, and Plan A is having such a procedure and protocol in place but never having to use it. You arrive at your destination safely.
But when the situation goes awry and everything that could go wrong does go wrong, you need to go to Plan B.
Here’s Plan B.
Call them known unknowns and unknown unknowns. A hole in the bottom of the hull, a vessel catching fire, a boat sinking and a crewmember going overboard are some of the known unknowns. It’s happened to others and may not be unusual. These are the disasters that are covered and accounted for with patches and fire-suppression systems and life jackets.
Now, the unknown unknowns — nothing as farcical as a Three-Headed Sea Hydra lifting a 200-foot flipper and knocking the boat a half mile — are more difficult to anticipate and plan for. Rogue waves, for example, can hit a boat just right, capsize it and in seconds create a life-and-death situation. It happens, and it happened to Jordan Hanssen, a world-class adventurer who has crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat, albeit a special one. His tale of survival began on a 29-foot rowboat — which had a cabin for sleeping — crossing the Atlantic from Senegal in West Africa to Miami with three other crewmembers: Adam Kreek, Markus Pukonen and Pat Fleming. After 73 days of incident-free travel, their boat was capsized by two rogue waves on April 6, 2013, 375 miles north of Puerto Rico.
“We had our Plan A, which was to get to Miami,” said Hanssen, 33, who lives in Seattle and is the founding member of OAR Northwest, which takes students on expeditions to bring adventure into the classroom. “We ended up needing Plan B. We got lucky as hell, but you prepare for luck. A big part of that was having the tools.”
Hanssen had worked with safety products before, when he rowed from New York to England with three college rowing teammates in 2005. They were outfitted with ACR equipment, and when the second trip was being planned, Hanssen reached out to Charlie Bond, a survival consultant and an Alaska Marine Safety Education Association instructor since 1985. Bond is also a representative for ACR products.
“Charlie wrote up a comprehensive list [see Grab the Ditch Bag! sidebar] about the stuff you should have,” Hanssen said. “This can apply to any boat, and we were in a 29-foot rowboat and we didn’t have a lot of space. So before the Senegal-to-Miami trip, because technology has made several leaps, I asked him what to take in the grab bag, and he said ‘I would take a PLB, and another PLB, and another PLB, and another PLB…’”
Hanssen listened and equipped all four crewmembers with their own PLB. The way it works is each PLB is registered for free with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A PLB is still going to work if it is not registered, but registering it provides rescuers with identifiable characteristics about you and your boat, which greatly aids rescue operations.
Hanssen and his team each had an ACR ResQLink Personal Locator Beacon, which is a little bigger than an older style cellular flip phone. The PLB is monitored by a network of GPS and other satellites, and when activated the PLB transmits, at 406 MHz, a Unique Identifier Number (UIN), which is programmed into the beacon based on the country in which the beacon is registered. The rescue signal is sent to authorities no matter where you are on Earth, land or sea.
“Jordan had a plan, because the worst thing that could happen would be all four going into the water,” Bond said. “If they only had an EPIRB on the boat, then one of them would have had to make the decision to grab the EPIRB and activate it. Because all four wore their PLB, when disaster struck they were ready.”
So, what type of beacon should someone use, an EPIRB or a PLB? Bond has a thought or two on that. “I recommend having the unit you will have in an emergency. If it’s an EPIRB on a boat that is by the pilot station, and everyone knows where it is and what it is, and can grab it in an emergency, then that is the right choice. A PLB that is not worn, that sits in your duffel bag or berth, is not worth having. You have to wear a PLB all the time to make it worthwhile.”
Into the Drink
Hanssen said the two rogue waves came one after another, and were shaped like squares instead of triangles.
“The first wave dumped 4,000 pounds of water onto the boat,” Hanssen said. “One big challenge is keeping the cabin doors closed as we go in and out when making shift changes. These two waves caught us right in the middle of a shift change. The fi ve scuppers could have drained off one wave. But the second wave undercut the boat and we were upside down.”
All four crewmembers were pitched into the water, and though the boat was designed to be self-righting, since the cabin door was open it was extremely unlikely that the boat could be righted. The sea conditions were 25-knot winds and four- to six-foot swells.
“Everyone is going to get to shore alive; that is how this is going to happen. That’s what I was thinking,” Hanssen said. “As the captain of the boat, after 10 or 15 seconds, I felt that people needed to know where we were. One of the crew asked me how many PLBs we would turn on, and I said all four.”
Three PLBs were picked up right away, while the fourth signal didn’t get picked up by the satellites until later because of the angle of the life vest and antenna.
“The rescue was textbook,” Hanssen said. “The U.S. Coast Guard responded like they should have, fi gured out what our boat looked like and flew straight to our location. There was no searching. They came right to us, but we were too far away for a helicopter. So we were picked up by a 585-foot Japanese car carrier, M/V Heijin. We capsized at 6 a.m. and turned the beacon on, and we were out of the water 12 hours later.”
The System Works
About 40 EPIRBs and PLBs that are registered in the United States are activated each year in a rescue situation. About a third of those are marine, another third are on land and another third are activated by aircraft or helicopter pilots.
“What makes this system work is that it’s a global humanitarian search-and-rescue system,” Bond said. “Consumers can buy and register a PLB or EPIRB for free, the satellites are maintained by NASA and the registration is through NOAA. Rescues are overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard on the marine side and the Air Force and local sheriff’s departments on land. Then the entire world is carved up so other countries are responsible for your rescue. No matter where you are on Earth, someone will find you if the beacon is sent out and picked up.”
Having a PLB that can withstand harsh conditions is crucial, and the environs of Alaska can put any product to the test. For example, a McMurdo FastFind Ranger PLB lifesaving distress beacon helped the U.S. Coast Guard locate and rescue British explorers stranded off the coast of Alaska.
Neil Laughton and James Bingham are British explorers who set out on a practice expedition to kayak across the Bering Strait. They had hoped to make the 26.6- mile journey by cross-country skiing and kayaking but got stuck on March 5, 2016, when the ice became too thin to walk on and too thick to paddle through.
Laughton and Bingham were airlifted to safety by a Coast Guard helicopter as they headed for the island of Little Diomede, midway between the western-most tip of Alaska and the eastern corner of mainland Russia. The two donned survival suits but realized that they had three choices: continue on, be rescued, or die.
“We had no option but to set off the Ranger PLB,” said Laughton, referring to the lightweight, palm-sized unit.“Within minutes rescuers were alerted to our situation and received regular updates.”
Like all ACR EPIRBs and PLBs, the McMurdo FastFind Ranger features a built-in GPS receiver, which was a key additional necessity when the Brits’ satellite phone didn’t work. It meant that their location could still be pinpointed to within a few meters, so despite Laughton and Bingham “moving” with the ice, the 121.5 MHz secondary homing transmitter meant that once SAR teams were in the vicinity, they were able to home in on the paddlers’ exact location and rescue them.
“Fortunately, the two survivors were well prepared with a personal locator beacon, which made locating them easier for my crews,” said Capt. Mark Morin, commanding officer of Alaska’s Air Station Kodiak.
“Adding GPS gives search-and-rescue people a lot of confidence,” Bond said. “It helps really pinpoint your location. An example would be that not only does it know you are in a baseball stadium, but with the GPS it knows you are between first and third base.”
Anyone ocean cruising — adventurer, recreational boater, fisherman — should strongly consider making an EPIRB or PLB standard equipment, because while both of these stories involved much smaller vessels, both ACR and McMurdo have tales of boaters rescued after their 40- or 50-foot boat went down or became disabled.
Unfortunately, no yacht is immune, and it’s so easy to add this extra layer of protection.
“The technology is dialed in to a point that you are being irresponsible if you do not have one of these,” Hanssen said. “The cost is between $250 and $350 for a PLB ($300 to $500 for an EPIRB), and the level of insurance that these provide is unreal.”
Grab the Ditch Bag
No matter what happens, it is good to have a ditch bag at the ready. It can be a lifesaver in the event of a hasty exit off the boat.
Charles Bond, a marine safety instructor, compiled a list of items to consider for a ditch bag. And while no list can be considered complete, the most useful items included are those that would be used in emergencies or in survival training. However, most of the equipment is based on long-term survival, which might not be an issue for mariners with a properly operating 406 MHz EPIRB or PLB on board.
“If you have a 406 MHz EPIRB or PLB on board and you activate it, most rescues, if you are within 250 miles of the coast, are under four and a half hours,” Bond said. “You are talking about this being a comfort list as opposed to being a survival list.”
The ditch bag and your EPIRB must be stored where you can get them without re-entering your vessel. Some vessels mount their ditch bag, also referred to as an abandon ship bag, under the companionway ladder or in a deck or cockpit locker. You and your crew must train to grab the abandon ship bag and bring it with you in any emergency. It is safer to have to put it back when everything turns out OK than to try and grab it after the emergency has begun, especially in the case of fire or rapid sinking. Where possible, everything should be designed to be secured to the raft.
“Making everyone put their wallets and passports in sealed bags, so no one needs to go running for things in an emergency, is a very good idea,” Bond said. “You can also vacuum-bag hats, gloves and underwear down to the size of a waffle. These are great items to have in a raft.”
Bond recommends making a checklist, compiling the items and putting them in a pile, then buying a ditch bag that fits the file. “Don’t get a ditch bag and then fill it,” Bond said. “It’s going to be too small or too big.”
Actually, Bond recommends having two bags at the ready: a ditch bag with items to make you feel more comfortable while waiting for rescue, and a long-term survival bag with items such as matches, fishing gear and knives, in case you have to spend a long time at sea or on land.
“In the ditch bag go what I call comfort items,” Bond said. “These are things that will make you and others more comfortable on the raft, so that you can simply step into the rescue platform in great shape and cut down on trauma.”
To see the entire list, visit: acrartex.wordpress.com/2013/05/.