Increase Your Odds After Activating the EPIRB
Before--and after--activating an EPIRB in international waters, take these steps to lengthen the odds that you're safely rescued. "Seamanship" from our November 2011 issue.
The incoming message over our VHF radio stunned me. “Your EPIRB went off last night,” said the captain of the Chilean navy gunboat. “We canceled the search when you called Radio Wollaston. You must anchor at Caleta Martial and wait for us to inspect your vessel.”
My husband, Evans Starzinger, and I were 20 miles north of Cape Horn and motoring in light winds through the Wollaston Archipelago en route to the Horn. The night before, our 47-foot Van de Stadt Samoa, Hawk, had carried us safely through a sustained 60-knot front. When we dropped anchor in a sheltered harbor at 2300, I’d radioed the local navy station and reported our position. I knew we hadn’t activated our 406-megahertz EPIRB, but I wasn’t going to argue with a gunboat. “We’ll anchor at Caleta Martial and wait for you,” I replied.
Two hours later, the men who’d boarded us with angry scowls waved good-bye, satisfied that our EPIRB hadn’t gone off. But the two crew on a German yacht sailing nonstop from Tahiti had activated their EPIRB in that 60-knot storm. A lack of communication led search-and-rescue authorities to mistake us for them, and as a result, no search operation was launched for more than eight hours. Only the boat’s EPIRB was recovered.
Between September 1982 and late 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard estimates that EPIRBs facilitated the rescue of nearly 23,000 people, proving them to be an invaluable aid in SAR situations. But we’ve learned that activating an EPIRB is nothing like dialing 911, especially in international waters. Since our Chilean experience, we’ve been indirectly involved with two other international EPIRB incidents in which rescue efforts were hampered by communications problems, jurisdictional issues, and a lack of SAR resources. Should you ever have to activate your EPIRB, understanding how the system works, where the process can break down, what steps to take, and what those ashore can do will increase your chances of survival.
To illustrate how the system works in a best-case scenario, consider this hypothetical case, based on a composite of several actual SAR incidents.
On passage in the southern Indian Ocean from Réunion to Durban, South Africa, the sloop Misadventure is rolled and dismasted in a storm south of Madagascar. The first mate’s arm is broken. While the captain clears away the mast, the mate evaluates the situation. The batteries are dead, the engine won’t start, the electronics are fried, and the boat is taking on more water. Once the mast is addressed, the captain and first mate agree that they must issue a Mayday. The captain takes their GPS-equipped 406-megahertz EPIRB into the cockpit, where it has a clear view of the sky, and activates it at 0000 UTC at position 28 degrees south, 40 degrees east, 450 nautical miles northeast of Durban. The mate pushes the emergency button on their DSC VHF and calls Mayday on the VHF and the SSB.
The DSC signal and voice calls go unanswered, but within seconds, one of the satellites of the international COSPAS-SARSAT System (see A Glossary of SAR Acronyms and Abbreviations) detects the EPIRB signal. In this ideal example (see Best-Case International SAR Scenario), the merchant vessel Safe Haven recovers the crew within 24 hours. However, the following can increase the rescue time by days or interrupt the process altogether:
Delays in fixing the vessel’s position: Before any rescue attempt is mounted, the vessel’s general position must be established. Misadventure carries a 406-megahertz EPIRB equipped with an internal GPS that transmits position information along with the unit’s 15 hexadecimal ID number. As a result, SAR authorities know the boat’s exact location within 20 minutes—as soon as the EPIRB’s GPS establishes a fix and transmits that to the GEOSAR satellites monitoring the Indian Ocean. Had the boat carried an EPIRB without a GPS, its position couldn’t have been calculated for several hours, until a low-Earth-orbit satellite had passed over two or three times. “Initial LEOSAR positions can differ by 50 to 60 miles and sometimes cross rescue areas,” said U.S. Coast Guard Captain Dave McBride. “I’ve seen cases where the first two positions calculated by the LEOSAR have been in different oceans.”
Inability to verify the emergency signal: Today’s 406-megahertz EPIRBs must be registered in a national database, and the registration information, including vessel description and one or more emergency contacts, must be updated every two years. In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees this database, which allows SAR authorities to eliminate 85 percent of false alerts before expending any resources. In U.S. waters, an unverified emergency signal would delay a search until a position could be established, but a search would be undertaken. Elsewhere, local SAR authorities may decide not to conduct a search for an unverified signal.