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Our summer safety guide - overboard: being seen at night

In a perfect boating world, nobody ever goes over the side. And if fate should strike, the victim would be wearing a PFD and have just the right device to guide rescuers back for a quick and safe pickup.

In a perfect boating world, nobody ever goes over the side. And if fate should strike, the victim would be wearing a PFD and have just the right device to guide rescuers back for a quick and safe pickup.

Unfortunately, statistics show that life is more complicated and hardly ever perfect, with the accident category known as “falls overboard” accounting for almost 200 fatalities in 2004 alone. If you consider a crew-overboard incident by day stressful, imagine how the same situation plays out in darkness. For a victim, life’s priorities quickly change to staying afloat and attracting attention.

There are no secrets about achieving the first objective, but the rest is a bit more complex. Without considering high-tech man-overboard alert systems, a look at the multitude of available personal safety lights can make your head spin: strobe lamps or incandescent bulbs, LED cluster or laser flare? What about battery life and activation? In what direction does the device give off the most light? The sobering truth is that there is no silver bullet for all eventualities, so having more options is better.

“The best light is the one you have on you,” says Chris Wahler, marketing director of ACR Electronics of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a safety gear manufacturer that also offers personal safety lights for MOB incidents ( “The best and brightest light in the drawer of the nav table won’t do you any good if you’re in the drink.” So a priority once the sun goes down should be to have a light with you, either fastened to your PFD, or worn as a head lamp or on a lanyard around your neck, or carried in a pocket.

Another concern is power. The best light available is of no use if it dies before your crew or the Coast Guard can spot you. Wahler advocates using a dedicated rescue light. “Multipurpose lights like flashlights or headlamps might have been used for other tasks, and have a reduced or depleted battery supply,” he says.

Maintenance discipline, which varies from user to user, also plays a role in product selection. For example, if you’re performing regular checks, short-lived alkaline batteries are OK. But if you don’t want to deal with frequent battery changes, use lithium-ion batteries, which last longer. Another distinction for rescue lights is whether they are water- or manually activated.

One of the most difficult decisions is choosing between incandescent bulbs, strobe lights and LEDs (light emitting diodes). A comprehensive test of strobe and incandescent lights by The Safety at Sea Committee of The Sailing Foundation ( ) between 1994 and 1996 revealed that strobe lights will get the attention of a rescuing party but are “poor for locating and ranging due to the short duration and nature (blue-white light) of its flash even when close aboard.” They are hard to acquire and reacquire visually from any distance, particularly in swell conditions.

The study further states that white or colored steady or intermittent lights are better than strobes for ranging and locating a victim. Wahler supports this observation. “We heard from helicopter pilots that fast strobes with 50 or more flashes per minute get their attention, but for pinpointing the victim a steady incandescent light is more helpful because it does not interfere with their depth perception,” he says.

Based on these observations, The Sailing Foundation experimented with a combination strobe/incandescent light and found that such a device could be seen with the naked eye from about 1-1/2 miles away, with the strobe visible for a longer distance.

And what about LEDs, the kings of battery economy? They continue to get brighter but still suffer from a problem that limits their use as rescue lights: Their beam is focused too narrowly, so it is hard to point at approaching rescuers with accuracy. “With a beam width of a few degrees, light from an LED source is not widely enough distributed for rescue purposes,” says Wahler. “SOLAS requirements, a minimum standard for rescue lights, demand that the source emits 0.75 candela of light into the upper hemisphere, which describes the 180 degrees of space above the water. It also means that the shaded spots on the light can’t be less than 0.75 candela.”

Field visibility tests of different rescue lights are difficult to conduct and time consuming, since each device has to be tested against a dark and a bright shoreline at different distances to the observers. “The most important result of our light test was the evidence that a more standardized test is needed,” says Chuck Hawley, West Marine vice president of technical information, who set out to conduct such a trial during the Crew Overboard Recovery Symposium in Sausalito, Calif., in August. The challenge was the sheer number of lights (20) that had to be tested against different backgrounds at distances of 0.5, 1, 1.5, and 2 miles.

Still, Hawley received feedback from the observers that certain lights — such as a super-bright tactical flashlight, a laser flare and one LED light with different modes — were visible from two miles away. “The challenge for lights with focused beams is not range but orientation,” he says. Using a laser flare with a 20-mile range to alert an approaching vessel, a victim can use the palm of the hand or two fingers to gauge the direction of the beam, similar to orienting a signaling mirror.

Rescue lasers differ from pointing lasers in that they produce a wedge of light that’s a few degrees wide, which makes it easier to hit an approaching party from several miles away. Once the laser strikes the vessel or aircraft, the rescuers see a bright flash that marks the position of the victim. The caveat with these devices is that they require presence of mind and two steady hands on the victim’s part. They can work from the deck of a boat but are much more difficult to operate with precision when treading water in the dark.

Here are some recommendations to consider:

• Have a light on you — either in your foulies or, better, on your PFD. Some light is better than none.

• Consider battery life. Lithium-ion batteries have a long life and don’t need to be changed as often as alkalines.

• Make up your mind if you need automatic activation upon water contact or if a manual switch will suffice.

• Consider your boating style and venue. A combined strobe/incandescent light might cover your needs as it can get attention and help guide approaching rescuers.

• Compare the technical specs against the SOLAS requirements, which constitute a minimum standard.

• If you can, try them before you buy them. Lab tests and numbers are not the end-all and be-all.