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 very worst thing is for sailors to be complacent,” Chief Button said, even after you’ve activated the EPIRB. “Assume that no one is coming, and do everything you can to rescue yourself.” Understanding the strengths and the weaknesses of the COSPAS-SARSAT System can also help you maximize your chances of rescue.
Carry the most up-to-date emergency equipment: The COSPAS-SARSAT System is a highly developed, worldwide SAR system with international protocols. But equipment and protocols change. For instance, merchant ships are no longer required to monitor earlier radio-distress frequencies; instead, they screen the new DSC system on VHF and SSB. If you’re headed offshore, outfit your boat properly with a GPS-equipped EPIRB (make sure it has a small readout showing your broadcasted position) and with both fixed and handheld DSC-capable VHF radios. Any vessel traveling to foreign ports must apply to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for a Ship Station license, and all communications and emergency equipment aboard must be registered under a single FCC-assigned Maritime Mobile Service Identity number unique to that boat.
Register the EPIRB, and provide contacts who know your itinerary and can always be reached: International rescue may be delayed or not attempted at all if the signal can’t be verified with a contact person ashore. Register your EPIRB, and keep the information updated in the NOAA database. The site allows you to enter two contacts, which increases the chances of SAR personnel reaching a knowledgeable source in an emergency. People move and phone numbers change; make a note in your calendar to check the information on the site annually. A properly registered EPIRB carries two stickers, one from NOAA and another showing battery life and servicing.
Stay in contact with those ashore: Share a float plan, ETA, and a list of alternate ports with your shoreside contacts, and establish an emergency-communication schedule. Anything that provides position information to SAR authorities can streamline the process of verifying your location and responding to your EPIRB. While online boat tracking by the vessel- and weather-reporting service YOTREPS, Globalstar’s Spot satellite personal tracker, SailMail, and other providers is no substitute for a properly registered EPIRB, in an emergency they can provide recent position information. If you carry a satellite phone, agree on an emergency-communication plan with your contact person ashore, establishing a preset time to call if the EPIRB is activated. This will allow you to conserve your batteries but let others reach you at a fixed time each day.
Stay in contact with other sailboats in your vicinity: In offshore rallies and in the most remote corners of the world, where SAR resources are all but nonexistent, there have been many instances of cruisers assisting other cruisers in emergencies. Maintaining communications by email, satphone, or radio with those around you increases your chances of rescue.
Carry several signaling devices: Given the high percentage of false alerts, some offshore races have begun to require two emergency signals from the same location before mounting a search. Consider backing up the EPIRB with a second EPIRB or a global satellite phone with spare batteries. With a phone, you can describe the exact nature of the emergency, it works when power is lost or the boat is dismasted, and it can be taken into the life raft. Pre-program the number of the U.S. MCC (1-301-817-4576) and the RCC for the search area where you’re sailing. (Visit www.cruisingworld.com/leonard1111 for a listing of this URL and other web resources.)
Signal Mayday three ways: Rescue authorities don’t mount salvage operations. When you issue a Mayday, you’re agreeing to abandon your vessel. The Mayday should be signaled in three ways: by emergency DSC call over VHF and SSB, by a voice call over both, and by activating the EPIRB.
Increase your visibility: According to Captain McBride, “Orange sails, tarps, radar reflectors, strobe lights—when you’re searching and there’s nothing else out there, it all helps.”
Carry the best offshore life raft you can afford: I once heard a boat-show salesman claim that you only needed a coastal life raft for offshore sailing. “With an EPIRB, you’ll be rescued within 24 hours,” he said. Even in U.S. waters, you could be in the raft for several days.
Stay with the boat as long as possible, but if you board the life raft, bring the EPIRB and a handheld DSC-capable VHF: Once in the raft, you’ll be much harder to find, so making contact by other means is critical. Bring your EPIRB and handheld DSC-capable VHF, as well as the global sat phone, if you have one, in a watertight protective case. The ditch kit should also include a handheld GPS, a megawatt searchlight, flares, and, if you can afford it, a SART and a second EPIRB to employ should the batteries run down on the first. Rechargeable batteries are seldom fully charged when you need them, so choose equipment that can run on dry cells, and keep spares in the ditch kit.
Don’t turn off the EPIRB until communicating with SAR authorities: Once the EPIRB is activated, the COSPAS-SARSAT System takes over, and in many rescue areas, the process continues until the vessel is located. If you activate your EPIRB and then resolve the emergency, don’t turn it off. That will leave the authorities chasing a signal to a location from which you’ve departed, wasting resources and jeopardizing lives. Instead, if possible, update SAR organizations on your status. Otherwise, leave the EPIRB on.