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EPIRBs - Safety at Sea

by Chief Warrant Officer Jim Krzenski, Commanding Officer, U.S. Coast Guard Station Fort Pierce

Today is the fourth day at sea on your 50 foot commercial fishing vessel. Your fish hold is almost full. After another good day of fishing you and your crew will be able to head to the fish house with a profitable catch. It has been a long day of back-breaking work and now it's time for you and your two man crew to get some well-deserved rest. You decide to anchor in about 35 feet of water, five miles offshore. You energize the anchor light and call it a night. You decide not to maintain a live watch on the bridge but you do set your radar alarm at three miles so that any vessels approaching within this distance will activate the alarm and awaken you, Your vessel is not equipped with a bilge alarm to warn you of flooding. There is a 3 to 4 foot swells causing the heavy fishing vessel to slightly pitch and roll on its anchor rode.

At three in the morning you are awakened from a deep sleep by salt water rising over your lower bunk. Several causes quickly pass through your mind. Maybe it's that loose hull plank I did not get a chance to repair, or maybe it could have been caused by a cracked and leaking salt water line, maybe a faulty stuffing tube. There is no time to analyze further. The water is rising too quickly. Fighting to remain calm, you quickly awaken your crew, still dry in their upper bunks. You yell for them to get up on deck. The VHF radio is inoperable due to being shorted out by the rising water. You and your crew quickly put on your life jackets, grab your emergency positioning radio beacon (EPIRP) and enter the 72 degree water, as your boat continues to steadily disappear into the sea beneath you. Less than a minute later, the last you see of your boat is the fading white anchor light atop your main mast, as it slips beneath the black sea. Your life raft is no where to be found in the darkness of night. The three of you float there alone, clutching your EPIRB, on the vast expanses of the sea.

Fortunately, your properly registered 406 MHZ EPIRP signal is received by an overhead satellite, and then transmitted to a ground tracking station. Within minutes, the nearest U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center receives your distress signal and position. Due to you having properly registered your EPIRB with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Coast Guard also knows who you are. Within minutes, a Coast Guard search and rescue unit has been dispatched to your position. A short time later the Coast Guard arrives on scene to observe three men in their life jackets closely huddled around a bright orange 406 MHZ EPIRP.

A short time later you are safely standing on the deck of the Coast Guard boat rehashing in your mind each step that led to this moment and questioning yourself over and over. Maybe I should have invested in that bilge alarm? Maybe I should have maintained a live watch on the bridge? You are very saddened that you have lost your vessel and catch. After a while you wisely decide to count your blessings. You realize that what is most important is that due to the EPIRB you and your crew were able to walk away with your lives.

The described scenario actually occurred at a station to which I was previously assigned. Many a mariner has been saved since the advent of EPIRBS. Whether legally required or not, it is the wise mariner who ensures there's an EPIRB on board before voyaging offshore. There are primarily two types of EPIRB's used by the boating public.

The first type is the Class "A" EPIRB. It transmits on VHF 121.5 MHZ and UHF 243 MMZ simultaneously. This EPIRB is detected by Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) and by aircraft flying overhead. The class "A" EPIRB’s position accuracy is advertised to be less than 20 miles. The Coast Guard receives many false alarms from this EPIRB. I'd be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time my crews have homed in on a Class "A" EPIRB signal only to locate the source originating from a boat that was some place on shore or moored to a dock. This is why it is so important to remove the battery from your EPIRB if your boat is going to be in storage for any length of time. This will prevent its accidental activation. A manually activated Class "A" EPIRB can be purchased for as little as $150.00. A float free self activating Class "A" EPIRB can be purchased for less than $1200.00. Class "A" EPIRBs should be tested every 60 days by activating within five minutes after any hour for one second.

The second type is the 406 MHZ EPIRB. This is the EPIRB that takes the search out of search and rescue. This is the EPIRB the Coast Guard recommends all offshore mariners use. In some cases it is legally required to be used. It transmits on 406.025 MHZ and VHF 121.5 MHZ simultaneously and is accurate to within 3 miles. Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT) will accurately detect these EPIRBs. Each owner of a 406 MHZ must ensure that their registration data card is completed and submitted to NOAA. In the event of your distress, proper registration will aid search and rescue units to identify you. To ensure proper use as well as to prevent accidental activation carefully read and adhere to all Manufacturer's operating instructions. The 406 MHZ EPIRB should be tested every 30 days. Usually this EPIRB is tested by pressing the test switch. The test light should flash for 4 seconds to indicate that it's functioning properly.

The legal requirements to carry an EPIRB vary with the type of vessel. Although recreational vessels are strongly encouraged to carry an EPIRB on board there are no legal requirements that they do so. Commercial fishing vessels that are 36 feet and larger, and operate beyond three miles from shore, and have a galley and berthing on board, are required to carry an EPIRB. Many commercial fisherman owe their lives to this requirement. Coast Guard inspected merchant vessels, operating in Coastal or Ocean trade, beyond twenty miles from shore, are also required to carry EPIRBs.

There are many additional things that the mariner can do to stay safe. To learn more, please call the USCG Auxiliary Boating Course Information Line at 1 (800) 336-5647 to obtain information on the course offered nearest to your location. If you have other boating safety-related questions, please call the Coast Guard's Boating Safety Hotline at 1 (800) 368-5647.

May all of your boating be SAFE.

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EPIRBS - Life Insurance at Sea

 

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