Calling for help: Do you have the right equipment?

Vessel DocumentationCoast Guard Safety Alerts

May 21-27 may be National Safe Boating Week, but we encourage all boaters to boat safe year-round. Follow along this week as we provide tips to help you stay safe while out on the water.

Written by Tom Dardis, Recreational Boating Safety Outreach Coordinator

Olivier Jehl, a French sailor, shows off his EPIRB at Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City, N.J., Monday, May 16, 2016, after he was rescued by the Coast Guard. Jehl was attempting a solo voyage from New York to the United Kingdom when his 21-foot sailboat struck a submerged object and sank, causing him to use his rescue raft, emergency position-indicating radio beacon and flares. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen/released)

So up until this point you have done everything right.

As a responsible boater you took a boating safety course and received your boat operator certificate. You know all your life jackets and other required safety equipment is in good working order because you had the Coast Guard Auxiliary come out for a vessel safety check. You even used the newly updated U.S. Coast Guard Boating Safety App to set up a float plan and then emailed it to a trusted friend.

You and your passengers put on your life jackets, you attached the engine cutoff switch and away you went.

You did everything right, yet you still ended up in the water unexpectedly.

Not to fret because back when the auxiliary was checking your boat, you went over required and recommended safety equipment. Being cautious, you decided to invest in an emergency positioning indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), which is already notifying the Coast Guard of your position. Help is on the way.

Unless you have a waterproof satellite phone, you should not consider your cell phone a reliable means to call for help in an emergency. A cell phone may not work if it gets wet from your plunge into the water or it may not have service to call for help.

COSPAS-SARSAT System Overview

COSPAS-SARSAT System Overview

The three most reliable forms of communication for recreational boaters are the VHF radio equipped with digital selective calling (DSC), the EPIRB and the personal locator beacon (PLB).

A VHF-DSC radio allows mariners to instantly send out a distress signal with the touch of a button. When properly registered and connected to a GPS unit, these radios automatically provide rescuers an exact position and can even provide them with the nature of the emergency. There are both handheld and mounted models available.

An EPIRB is a device designed to transmit a distress signal if you get into trouble. No matter where you are in the world, an EPIRB sends a signal to emergency responders through a satellite system called Cospas-Sarsat. When looking to purchase an EPIRB, one important thing to take into consideration is how it will be activated. Category I EPIRBS will automatically or manually activate while Category II must be manually activated. If you are thinking of stowing your EPIRB away then the manually activated is a logical choice.

A member of Coast Guard Station Rio Vista exhibits a Personal Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon during rescue and survival training, Friday, April 6, 2012. The personal EPIRB is a satellite transmitter capable of broadcasting on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz to provide a position accurate to within three nautical miles within 90 minutes. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Levi Read/released)

A member of Coast Guard Station Rio Vista exhibits a Personal Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon during rescue and survival training, Friday, April 6, 2012. The personal EPIRB is a satellite transmitter capable of broadcasting on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz to provide a position accurate to within three nautical miles within 90 minutes. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Levi Read/released)

PLBs are generally lighter than an EPIRB and as the name says, this is a personal device. This ideally means one for each person. Also, look for a PLB that floats and is specifically designed to be used on and in the water.

The first thing you should do after purchasing an EPIRB or PLB is register it and always make sure your registration information is updated before heading out. This helps responders know who to look for and what to keep an eye out for.

Whereas the devices should only be activated when you are in danger, you should test your devices in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. Most EPIRBs have a test position. This test position allows the entire unit, including electronics, battery and antenna, to be tested without generating a false alarm.

VHF-DSC radios, EPIRBs, and PLBs of various price ranges are available from your favorite boating supply merchant.

Remember that EPIRBS and their mounting brackets or housing units, PLBs, and VHF-DSC radios should be examined regularly for any physical damage. If there appears to be any damage, corrosion, cracking, water ingress, etc., the beacon or radio should be replaced immediately.

Knowing how to reach the Coast Guard in an emergency is an important step in getting help quickly. Make sure you have the right equipment to make a distress call before hitting the water.