EPIRBs: ‘If you can float, we can find you’

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The offshore fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico that took the lives of three football players earlier this year stands out as three deaths that could have been prevented if the vessel had been equipped with an EPIRB.

Nick Schuyler was the only survivor, spending 46 hours on the overturned Everglades.

"PFDs and an EPIRB - those are the big two," says Capt. Kip Louttit, deputy commander of the Coast Guard's Maintenance and Logistics Command and an avid sailor who teaches boating safety. "If you can float and we have your position, we can find you and get you."

The Coast Guard can now home in on an EPIRB signal from its aircraft, using a DF-430 multimission direction-finding system - part of the agency's Rescue 21 initiative, Louttit says. The DF-430 homes in on the EPIRB's 121.5 MHz homing signal and its 406 MHz alert signal. The 406 signal - a half-second pulse emitted every 52 seconds - is 200 times more powerful than the 121.5, so with new technology that can lock on to a pulse, the 406 is much easier for aircraft to home in on and from much greater distances.

Two National Football League players - Marquis Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29 - along with former University of Southern Florida player William Bleakley, 25, died after Cooper's 2005 21-foot Everglades center console capsized in rough seas off Clearwater Fla. Nick Schuyler, 24, of Tampa, Fla., survived by staying on top of the overturned hull for 46 hours, clutching the lower unit of the boat's single 200-hp Yamaha 2-stroke.

The men were fishing more than 50 miles off Clearwater. An EPIRB would have been their best hope for rescue that far offshore; the victims were in all likelihood out of VHF range, especially for a hand-held radio.EPIRBs, which range from roughly $500 to $1,200, are one of the most important pieces of last-resort lifesaving gear on a boat out of VHF and cell phone range. Connected to a global satellite network, the beacons alert search-and-recue agencies worldwide.

A smaller version of the EPIRB is the personal locator beacon, which can be purchased for as low as $300. PLBs are pocket-sized and can be easily attached to a life jacket. But unlike EPIRBs, they do not have a strobe and are not required to float. Plus, they have a shorter battery life.

Sales of EPIRBs increased significantly at West Marine stores on the central west coast of Florida after the accident, according to district manager Bill Pierce. "It was a tragedy, but it raised awareness and brought in people who would never even thought [of buying an EPIRB]," says Pierce, who oversees 14 stores from Bradenton to Crystal River.

Wayne Seel, manager of the West Marine in Sarasota, Fla., estimates EPIRB sales increased by 40 percent at his store after the accident.

Small-boat owners were particularly jarred by the news, says Wayne Seel, manager of the West Marine in Sarasota, Fla., who estimates EPIRB sales increased by 40 percent at his store. "They realized that EPIRBs weren't just for the big boats," he says.

After the accident, Seel set up a table display for his EPIRB products just inside the front door of his store and had a newspaper photo of the football players' capsized boat. And it wasn't just anglers who came in looking to buy. "We had a lot of families," says Seel. "The incident made people think about safety - as sad as that sounds."

The owner of the Everglades that overturned, Marquis Cooper, never knew about EPIRBs until a fishing friend told him about the devices only days before the fateful trip. "I asked [Cooper] if he had an EPIRB, and he didn't know what it was," says Clay Eavenson, an inshore charter captain. "I told him if I was going to run offshore I would have one. He said, 'Yeah, I'm going to get one. If you say I should have one, I'll get one.' "

He never did.

According to Florida state investigators, the crew's failure to properly anchor their boat caused the capsizing. The anchor was stuck on the bottom, so the men decided to tie the rode to the port-side transom U-bolt and power forward to free the hook. The anchor stayed put, pulling down the stern. The cockpit flooded, and the deep-vee center console rolled over to port within seconds.

For more on the tragedy, see "NFL deaths blamed on an anchoring error."