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Should you carry a rescue beacon on your boat?

EPIRB, PLB—or Stay at the Dock

Photo by U.S. Coast Guard: The U.S. Coast Guard may mandate satellite beacons to simplify searches.Should you carry a rescue beacon on your boat? Soon it may not be up to you.

TowBoatUS operator John Redler, 38, was new to the job when he died. He and his wife had recently returned from cruising the Caribbean and, rather than go back to real estate, Redler got his captain’s license and went into business with TowBoatUS on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts.

But on May 16 of this year the Coast Guard received a distress call from Redler aboard Triple J. It was 1:00 am, and he was in trouble.
Triple J was taking on water. Not another word was heard from him again. The Coast Guard teams sent to find him were hampered by rain, fog, and darkness, and at around 6:00 am a local harbormaster found the boat partially submerged with Redler dead in the cabin. 

Contrast that outcome with another boating emergency a year earlier. On May 21, 2011, Bruce Mandigo, his brother David, and his daughter’s boyfriend were pulled from waters north of the Bahamas after their 35-foot center console sank in the middle of the night. The boat had taken on water without anyone noticing until it was too late to do anything. As the boat was sinking, the crew activated David Mandigo’s personal locator beacon (PLB), and six hours later the Coast Guard found all three clinging to a cooler, lifejackets on, very much alive.

Outcomes such as these have prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to consider mandating that any U.S. boaters venturing offshore carry some kind of rescue beacon, either a PLB or an emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). A few years ago Congress gave the Coast Guard the authority to make beacons mandatory after the nation witnessed a desperate spectacle, as rescuers hunted for four men, including a pair of pro football players, overdue from fishing off Florida’s Gulf Coast.

NFL players Corey Smith and Marquis Cooper perished, and so did William Bleakley, a former football player at the University of South Florida. Only Nick Schuyler, another former South Florida player, was found alive, clinging to the outdrive of Cooper’s overturned center console. The search had cost taxpayers $1.9 million and, as is always the case, it had put the lives of rescuers at risk. With an emergency beacon, all four might have been saved, and the search would have been far less expensive.

“Now that the Coast Guard has the authority, they certainly have the responsibility to determine if they should exercise that authority,” says Chris Wahler, beacon product manager for ACR Electronics, one of the biggest names in EPIRBs and PLBs. “We think they will have to make a strong business case in order to get wide adoption if they choose to mandate.”

Gordon Garrett is a retired Coast Guard commander who spent much of his 29-year career directing search and rescue, known by its military acronym SAR. Garrett, an advocate for mandatory beacons, now is a senior risk analyst for the Washington consulting firm BayFirst Solutions. Drawing on his Coast Guard experience, he has filled in the gaps in Coast Guard statistics with educated guesses; the result is a cost-to-benefit case highly favorable toward mandatory beacons.

Garrett says preliminary Coast Guard statistics suggest that up to 30 lives might be saved annually, but he believes that number is understated because of the way the agency keeps records. He also believes that for every dollar boaters spend on beacons, taxpayers will save at least ten because of increased search-and-rescue efficiency. “The price point of this stuff is trivial compared to [the] cost of offshore recreation,” he says. “Search and rescue has always been a partnership that depends on contributions from the person operating offshore as well as the responder. Let’s all take some responsibility for ourselves.”

Now You Know:

Most beacons today signal satellites on the digital 406 MHz frequency, since satellite detection of the analog 121.5 MHz ended in 2009. Some beacons also use the 121.5 MHz “homing” signal, still monitored by most commercial airliners.

Beacon Sources

ACR Electronics;
www.acrelectronics.com

Kannad;
www.kannadmarine.com

McMurdo;
www.mcmurdomarine.com

Garrett tracks search-and-rescue events around the world. He says it is almost inconceivable that searchers would have taken five hours to find the late John Redler’s boat, had he backed up his radio distress call by activating a rescue beacon. “If he had a PLB or a beacon with continuous updating of the distress position maybe things would have ended differently,” he says.

Only when the U.S. Coast Guard weaves thousands of individual events like Redler’s death and the Mandigo rescue into a statistical picture will it be able to make “a strong business case” for a mandate—or not. Another factor will be today’s high rate of false alarms from rescue beacons. According to NOAA, 29 percent of EPIRB activations in 2010 were “false alerts.” The false alert rate for PLBs in 2010 was 26 percent.

BoatUS, which says it represents the interests of more than 500,000 recreational boaters, is a strong advocate of boating safety in general and, specifically, emergency beacons. The organization’s EPIRB-rental program has been credited with saving 66 lives in 27 activations. However, BoatUS has traditionally opposed government mandates, believing that every new requirement—every additional expense—is a disincentive to potential new boaters. In general today’s EPIRBs cost less than $800, while PLBs cost around $300 or less. BoatUS has successfully resisted efforts to force us to wear lifejackets and, more recently, to accept mandatory integration of GPS with VHF radio.

BoatUS President Margaret Podlich, speaking soon after Redler’s death, says her organization is taking no position on mandatory beacons while the Coast Guard creates its statistical “business case” for or against. The next milestone in the process is a recommendation by the National Boating Safety Advisory Council, expected in the fall. The Council, which includes executives Dave Harlow of Brunswick Corp. and Chuck Hawley of West Marine, makes nonbinding policy recommendations to the Coast Guard.

If a mandate is enacted, the people interviewed for this story envision a nuanced requirement, rather than an all-or-nothing approach. One example would involve a waiver for those boats that go no farther than, say, 20 miles offshore, as long as they carry a 25-watt VHF radio with its Digital Selective Calling (DSC) feature enabled. DSC allows boaters in trouble to send a position-tagged SOS at the push of the radio’s red “panic button.” (For more on DSC, see “The 411 on DSC” in our May issue or at www.pmymag.com.)

For boaters going no farther than, say, 100 miles offshore, a PLB would meet the requirement because rescuers could generally reach those people before the PLB’s battery dies. Venturing beyond 100 miles from shore would require no less than an EPIRB because of its more powerful battery.

Podlich, whose organization includes a Washington lobbying staff, stresses that any rule should be written in a way that could incorporate future innovations in beacon technology, rather than restrict boaters to what is available today. She wants to see “an incentive to evolve” to better and cheaper electronics.

That is not to suggest that Power & Motoryacht readers should delay a purchase decision in anticipation of something better or cheaper. ACR Electronics recently unveiled ResQLink, the smallest 406 MHz PLB yet. Less than 4 inches long and weighing 4.6 ounces, it is nonetheless able, at the push of a button, to guide rescuers to within 100 meters of a person bobbing in the waves. ResQLink retails for $325. 

The beacon regulation is still a few years away, if it comes at all, and waiting until the price drops further would be a foolish economy. As Mandigo and the family of John Redler will attest, no one goes out on the water anticipating that today is the day they will face a life-threatening emergency. But sometimes in boating—as in life—stuff just happens.

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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