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.
Problems with cross-border coordination and lack of SAR resources: The International Maritime Organization set out rescue areas and responsibilities in the 1979 I.M.O. International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue. While the process is supposedly standard worldwide, many countries lack the resources to search for foreign sailors. In less developed countries, jurisdictional issues, a lack of resources, or communication problems can delay or prevent rescue attempts. In our example, Misadventure lies at the intersection of four rescue areas, but South Africa, the only country with SAR resources, takes the lead in the operation.
The tyranny of distance: “The challenges to a successful rescue grow exponentially with the distance from shore,” said Rick Button, chief of the Coordination Division of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office of Search and Rescue. “Any SAR organization would be pushed to the limit of its capabilities trying to mount a rescue 400 to 500 miles offshore.” Misadventure is beyond helicopter range and at the very limit of the range of fixed-wing aircraft, so the rescue attempt is dependent upon merchant ships via AMVER, a voluntary ship-reporting system used worldwide for SAR. According to U.S. Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Mark Turner, “Even in U.S. waters, the average time to rescue a vessel so far offshore would be three to four days. In most cases, once authorities activate the AMVER system and find a ship that can respond, it takes at least 12 to 24 hours to reach the vessel.”
Lack of critical information: A frustrating thing about an EPIRB signal is that it contains no concrete information. There’s no way to know what the exact emergency is, whether the vessel is still in distress, or even if the crew is still alive.
Difficulty in pinpointing the vessel: Captain McBride has flown dozens of missions in search of distressed vessels in the U.S. rescue area, which extends 600 nautical miles from shore. Most 406-megahertz EPIRBs also broadcast on 121.5 megahertz to assist in the final location of the vessel, but the 121.5-megahertz signal has a very short range. “I can direction find off a 406-megahertz signal from 120 miles out, but with 121.5 megahertz, I may not be able to find it until I’m five miles away,” he said. Very few commercial vessels are equipped with direction-finding equipment, so they must rely on the position supplied by the RCC. If the battery has run out and the EPIRB ceased signaling, if the boat is dismasted or awash, or if the crew has taken to the life raft or is in the water, the target may be impossible to find.