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An EPIRB and some Lady Luck

Dennis Clements had a model year 2000 ACR Satellite2 406 MHz EPIRB, a manually activated beacon, according to ACR marketing manager Chris Wahler, who spoke to the sailor after his rescue. He had the EPIRB mounted in its bracket on a bulkhead inside the cabin near the companionway, says Wahler.

He says federal regulations mandate that all EPIRBs must activate when they become wet, but a manually activated EPIRB like Clements' model will not activate if it's properly positioned in its bracket, he says.

"What I learned from talking to Mr. Clements is that he had put the EPIRB in the bracket backward," says Wahler. This negated the effect of a magnet on the device that prevents the EPIRB from activating in the bracket when it becomes wet, he says.

So when a wave crashed through the cabin and soaked everything, the beacon went off, says Wahler. "That, to me, is luck," he says.

The Coast Guard launched rescue efforts at about 5 p.m. Jan. 2 in response to the signal.

Despite the unforgiving conditions, mechanical and electrical problems, and holed cabin side, Clements says he thought activating the EPIRB was unwarranted. "I didn't know if the thing worked anyway," he says. And when it did activate, Clements says he thought about turning it off.

"I always believed that you turned on your beacon as you climbed up out of your boat and into your life raft," he says. "I wasn't sinking at the time. I had just shattered the port side. I had taken a couple hundred gallons of water on board, but I still thought I could make it."

Clements' EPIRB, which didn't have GPS, has a 15-year lifespan if maintained properly, says Wahler. ACR recommends that the batteries be replaced every five years. (For commercial users, federal regulations mandate replacement every five years, he says.) Clements says he knew his beacon's batteries should have been replaced.

"It was 10 years old," he says. "I knew it was out of date. I didn't have a budget to buy a new one - that wasn't high on my list of stuff to do. So I basically just took it apart, opened it up, took each one of the batteries out, and checked them with a volt meter. They were registering the rated voltage.

"I looked at the possibility of replacing the batteries, but they were like $100 a piece or something like that," he says. "The unit was so old, I thought to put $100 batteries in this thing when it's 10 years old - it would be a better price decision to buy a new one and, like I told you, it wasn't in the budget."

Wahler says EPIRB users should never disassemble the devices, because they could damage them or put them back together incorrectly. ACR does not offer user-replaceable batteries, says Wahler. The user must bring the beacon to a service location. (There are 60 in the United States.) For about $250 to $300, the battery and the seals and gaskets are replaced. The unit will also undergo a pressure test to make sure it is still watertight, as well as a transmission test.

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