I love EPIRBs.
When asked what one thing I would take with me offshore, I always answer: an EPIRB. There is simply no valid argument against these devices. I recommend them to friends, insist on them for family and think anyone who goes to sea without one is just plain stupid.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, here is another thing I believe: EPIRBs cannot save your life. All they can do is tell the rescuers where the EPIRB is: not you, not your boat, not your life raft. If I could remember the number of searches I have been on following an EPIRB activation where we never found a thing and no one came home, that number would hollow out your soul.
Though EPIRBs are credited with saving the lives of more than 1,500 mariners per year, in my career I have seen more risky decisions made — many of which ended in tragedy — because an EPIRB was used as a sort of “easy button” to reset the game if things went wrong. They can’t. EPIRBs are dangerous when boaters think that having them (alone) is enough.
EPIRBs won’t help you stay warm. You can’t use them to stay afloat. They will not make the ocean a less dangerous place or keep you alive a minute longer if you get into real trouble out there. EPIRBs do not save lives; rescuers do. EPIRBs are a communications device and nothing more. Like every other piece of equipment on board, the proper use of an EPIRB requires time, consideration and effort. It’s not enough to simply have one aboard — you have to know how to use it.
Just like your VHF radio, your EPIRB needs to be registered. It’s the vital information in that registration that tells the search and rescue teams what they are looking for. And it can include more than just whom to call and your vessel’s particulars. In fact, if used correctly, your EPIRB registration data can send rescuers your entire float plan.
The registration allows you to list two emergency contacts, with as many as four phone numbers each. The most unused field in EPIRB registrations is the “additional data” field. It’s a 500-character space where you can write whatever you want, whenever you want to update it, such as, “Leaving 08-12-17 — 0800 — from Apollo Beach, heading for Dry Tortugas. 4 POB.” (I wish.) Or you can act as your own best emergency contact and provide a link to your float plan.
The image below is from my own EPIRB Registration: I use the “additional data” field to link to my online float plan. If I keep that link updated, it becomes all I really need in my additional data field, and provides searchers the best chance of finding me. However, you don’t need to have your own website to link to your float plan. You can use Dropbox or Google Drive to link to a Word or PDF float plan document and provide everything that might be helpful to searchers.
You might hate hearing this (sorry), but Category I EPIRBs — the kind that automatically release and “float free” from your vessel — do not always automatically release or float free from your vessel. They have to be mounted correctly. What “correctly” means can be nuanced, depending on the vessel type.
When the 40-foot Beneteau Cheeki Rafiki went missing in May 2014, the vessel’s EPIRB was not activated. From the official report: “No alert was received from Cheeki Rafiki’s EPIRB, possibly because it could not be retrieved from inside the vessel following the rapid capsize and consequent inversion after the keel detached from the hull.”
When sailboats capsize they tend to take a long time to sink. The hydrostatic releases that allow EPIRBs to leave their mounts will not trigger until the EPIRB reaches a certain depth. If mounted inside the cockpit of a sailing vessel (a common thing), hydrostatically released EPIRBs may never get to release depth, and cannot float free from the centerline of a capsized vessel. I suggest sailors find a way to mount their EPIRBs on the outside of the rail.
Practice Makes Perfect
At sea, in an emergency, at night is no time to be reading the directions. If you haven’t practiced activating your EPIRB, then you will not be good at using it during an emergency. Though you should not actually activate the EPIRB to test it, you should inspect it and follow your EPIRB’s testing guidelines monthly.
If you are not removing the EPIRB from its mount every month, completely, then you are not inspecting your EPIRB. Get on it.
Remember, an EPIRB won’t save your life — it will only make it much easier for someone else to do that. Don’t rely on them as the only gear you need to be safe, but do have them aboard and treat them as the vitally important tools they are by updating your registration and checking their condition regularly.
These electronic devices are last-ditch wonder flares for distressed mariners lost at sea, and for that purpose they are my favorite must-have item aboard any vessel. But they should never be used as a planning tool. They are not to be taken into account when making any decisions about what is safe and what isn’t, or about what you can handle and what you can’t. They will not keep you out of trouble. And if you don’t feel safe making the trip without them, then you have no business making the trip at all.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue.