The ship was sinking. The crew were scurrying around in what only can be described as controlled panic. In evacuating the vessel, they boarded the tender rather than the lifeboat with the logic that it had an engine. The fact that they were a thousand miles from land showed how much of a hit their reasoning had taken in the emergency. At least there was the EPIRB to assist in their rescue. Doing what he had been told to do, a crewmember threw it in the water.
Sometime later, a Coast Guard plane flew overhead. The aircraft crew radioed the rescue coordination center: “We’re above the beacon, we have a strong signal, but there’s nothing down there.” The command came back to turn the aircraft to a particular heading and fly a straight line for at least 10 miles. And indeed, many miles away from the signal, they located the crew in the skiff. Fortunately, the rescue center had worked out the prevailing currents in that part of the world and correctly estimated where they would find the drifting crew.
This scenario is based on a true story, conveyed to Dockwalk by maritime attorney Michael Moore, who asked the crewmember who activated the EPIRB if he had tied it off to the lifeboat or skiff before he threw it in the water. “No” was the answer. “Do you understand how it works?” Moore asked him. “That’s your beacon; that’s how the rescue plane will find you.”
“Well, no one ever really explained that to me,” he responded. “They just said, ‘Throw it in the water,’ and I threw it in the water.”
While the ending was happy, this worst-case scenario illustrates how human error can complicate a rescue, even with what’s considered a failsafe piece of equipment. “In that kind of panic situation, people aren’t really thinking, ‘Oh, I need to go get the EPIRB,’” says Mikele D’Arcangelo of ACR Electronics, which specializes in emergency beacons. “They’re just excited that they’ve made it off.”
Yacht crew, especially new crew, should specifically be shown the EPIRB. Open up the case; let everyone know you have to take the EPIRB out of the bracket to activate it. Here’s how you activate it, press this button, or just throw it in the water.
The EPIRB — short for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon — is meant for one thing only: rescue. And it does its thing very well, sending a distress signal on a 406MHz frequency when activated, which is picked up by Cospas-Sarsat satellites, relayed to mission control, and then to the nearest rescue coordination center (RCC). Approximately 45,000 people have been rescued since the International Cospas-Sarsat Programme began in 1982.
It works better today than ever before, explains Sean McCrystal of Seas of Solutions, which makes the McMurdo SmartFind EPIRB among other safety products. “There hasn’t been a massive amount of change (since 1982), but in the last three to four years it’s just gone crazy. It’s more accurate, it’s faster, and the global coverage is much greater.”
This is because of the addition of Galileo GNSS for better location accuracy and faster response and the program’s MEOSAR upgrade — new medium-altitude satellites added to the existing low-altitude and geostationary ones. “If you’d spoken to me three or four years ago, I would have said outreach detection time is between 45 minutes and 90 minutes; with MEOSAR, it’s under five,” says McCrystal. You can also buy EPIRBs now with AIS beacons that simultaneously alert nearby vessels, and Return Link Service (RLS), which shows a reassuring blue light that confirms the distress signal has been received.
With these new developments, the question is whether it’s worth investing in a new EPIRB.
“The fundamental change is this MEOSAR investment, new satellites and new antennas on the ground by all the major players… It doesn’t matter how old your EPIRB is, if it’s a 406 EPIRB it benefits from the new speed and accuracy of MEOSAR,” says McCrystal. “But the other features — Galileo, RLS, which is linked to Galileo, and AIS — are only available in the newer models.”
Both McCrystal and D’Arcangelo say the most important thing to do is register the EPIRB. One U.S. Coast Guard study showed that 96 percent of EPIRB alerts are false and 85 percent of these are resolved by the RCC via the registration information.
The registration also needs to be kept up to date, stresses D’Arcangelo. “It literally takes three minutes online to do,” he says. “Let’s say the crew has a charter with 15 people on board and the last time that they updated the registration it only included the six crewmen on the boat. If something happens and the Coast Guard comes for an evacuation, they might just bring a helicopter that could fit six people, thinking that’s all they’re coming to rescue.”
While the ending was happy, this worst-case scenario illustrates how human error can complicate a rescue, even with what’s considered a failsafe piece of equipment.
The registration information should be as detailed as possible, D’Arcangelo adds, including any medical issues. “Letting search and rescue know we have someone on board with a heart problem or diabetes, maybe they will pack that extra medicine and that other first aid kit to deal with that.”
The second issue with EPIRBs is knowing how to use them. “I’ve spoken to quite a few survivors who said the first time they looked at their beacon was when their ship was sinking,” says McCrystal. “It’s obvious, but it’s reading the instructions, understanding how to activate it, and how to test it.”
Yacht crew, especially new crew, should specifically be shown the EPIRB, says D’Arcangelo. “Open up the case; let everyone know you have to take the EPIRB out of the bracket to activate it. Here’s how you activate it, press this button, or just throw it in the water.”
Finally, D’Arcangelo says, “Always have a carry-off EPIRB (Category 2) for the crew in the path of the evacuation route, one that someone can easily grab as a backup.”
This article originally ran in the July 2022 issue of Dockwalk.