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December 22, 2009

Stay Safe with Electronic Beacons

EPIRBs, PLBs and satellite transmitters can make the difference...

Understand this fact: The ocean can beat you whether you operate a 23-foot center-console or a  beefy 65-foot sport-fisherman. The ocean may spawn unexpected rough seas and high winds or simply show off its vastness. A disabled vessel 60 miles from shore is about as helpless as a bound man in the desert.

But you can even the odds!

Protect yourself by studying seamanship, maintaining onboard systems and owning proper safety equipment. For offshore anglers and some inshore fishermen, necessary gear includes an electronic device such as an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), personal locator beacon (PLB) or SPOT satellite messenger.

"Safety equipment has moved off the bottom rung of the discretionary spending ladder," says Chris Wahler, marketing manager for ACR Electronics (www.acrelectronics.com), makers of EPIRBs, PLBs and other safety products. "More mariners and fishermen are recognizing that all the experience in the world can't help them if they can't communicate their distress."

Additionally, boaters must commit to paying hundreds of dollars for gear they may never use. To that Wahler asks: "How much would you pay for one when it's just you and your cooler floating on the ocean?"

Not "If" but "Which"
Does every angler need an electronic safety net? Wahler says simply: "Every captain has to assess his vulnerabilities." Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

• Do I ever fish alone?
• Do I ever fish far enough from shore that I can't easily swim to safety?
• Do I fish more often with competent crew or neophytes?
• Do I ever fish outside of cell-phone or VHF range?
• If my vessel sinks, how will I  communicate with others?
• Do I ever fish outside of the United States?
• Do I fish in cold water or at night?

Even if you're fishing only inshore, within sight of civilization, during the day and in warm water, an electronic signaling device may still prove handy. When it comes to safety, think redundancy. Units like the SPOT also provide non-emergency communication options for touching base with friends and family or sharing fishing adventures.

To help you choose the right product, Wahler and Derek Moore, SPOT's marketing director, offer the following information and descriptions.

EPIRBs
EPIRBs are designed to be waterproof to a certain depth (about 30 feet) and float upright in a transmitting position. They were originally created for maritime use. Category I EPIRBs automatically activate when immersed and float free from their brackets. Category IIs must be removed from their brackets and activated either manually or by immersion, depending on the model.

Captains register EPIRBs to their vessels through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (http://beaconregistration.noaa.gov)and may update the stored information at any time.

When an EPIRB activates, it transmits a 5-watt distress signal via a special 406 MHz emergency frequency. The signal, with its unique ID number, goes to NOAA, which routes the message to the U.S. Coast Guard district closest to the  vessel. (Processing of 121.5 MHz emergency-beacon transmission signals ceased on Feb. 1, 2009.)

In waters adjoining the United States - such as in the Bahamas and Mexico - the Coast Guard's Rescue Coordination Centers work with search-and-recovery operators within each country.

The distress signal routes through satellites called LEOSARs (low-earth orbit; altitude, 530 miles) and GEOSARs (geostationary;  altitude, 22,000 miles) - operated by an international agency called Cospas-Sarsat (www.cospas-sarsat.org). EPIRBs, powered by lithium batteries, transmit every 50 seconds for 48 hours.

The worldwide average notification period - the time it takes for your signal to be received and your location found - is one hour. If your EPIRB is GPS-enabled, that period drops to 15 minutes. Some GPS-enabled EPIRBs interface with your onboard electronics; others acquire a lat/lon position with their own receiver once activated. GPS-enabled EPIRBs generally cost about $150 more than non-enabled units. EPIRB prices range from $480 to $1,200. (Note: BoatU.S. - www.boatus.com - rents EPIRBs for $40 to $65 per week, plus shipping.)

PLBs
PLBs were designed initially for land-based use; however, they have transitioned to the marine environment and are waterproof to a slightly shallower depth than most EPIRBs. A PLB must be held upright so its antenna can transmit and must be manually activated.

Captains register PLBs to themselves, also through NOAA. And they may change the registration info at any time based on specific trip needs or to alter contacts or vessel information.

PLBs also transmit at 5 watts on a 406 MHz frequency  to LEOSAR and GEOSAR satellites and on through to NOAA and the USCG. A PLB can send a continuous signal for 24 to 36 hours, depending on water temperatures.

GPS-enabled PLBs generally cost about $100 more than non-GPS models. Prices range from $300 to $600.

SPOT
SPOTs were designed for land or sea operation and house a GPS receiver and satellite transmitter that emits distress signals as well as select messages to family or friends. The waterproof units float and must be activated manually.

To send an emergency signal, the user presses the 911 button (SOS on the newest model) for three seconds. SPOT sends a notification every five minutes to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center (www.geosalliance.com), a  private entity that provides security to major corporations and government agencies. GEOS attempts to reach the SPOT owner's contacts to verify the emergency and quickly notifies the appropriate rescue authority - public or private - for the vessel's area.

SPOT relays messages to LEO satellites (altitude, 876 miles), operated by Globalstar, a worldwide private satellite voice and data service provider. (Note: SPOT transmissions use an L Band uplink, unaffected by recent issues Globalstar has had with satellite-phone communications, SPOT's Moore says.)

SPOTs transmit at 0.16 watts using spread-spectrum technology, which uses deliberately varied frequencies that result in greater bandwidth, Moore says. A SPOT distress signal broadcasts for seven days.

Non-emergency functions include "Check OK," which sends a preprogrammed message to contacts (updateable anytime at www.findmespot.com). "Check OK provides personalized satellite messaging that's not dependent on cellular range," Moore says. "You can use OK to send information to your wife back home that you're running late and are OK." In addition, every message carries lat/lon coordinates quickly plotted on a Google map.

The Help function sends non-emergency requests for assistance to friends. SPOT also can interact with BoatU.S. for towing  services.

SPOT units cost $150; basic service costs $99 per year. The optional tracking feature costs $50 a year.

For further help, visit the websites listed within this column. Then choose one or multiple beacons for your boat and fishing practices.