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PLBs...Don't leave dockside without one!

Mar 16, 2010

You're enjoying the luxury and security of your 57-foot vessel and thinking about the good life and how really great things are going for you at this particular time in life. You are halfway through your voyage from Hong Kong to Phuket and suddenly you hear a most disturbing sound and feel a barely discernable bump in the night … at this very moment your whole world is about to change, the duration and final outcome of this change will depend on a 9 ounce, 6-inch-long electronic and technological marvel known as a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).

A modern, digital, PLB should be on every sailor's pre-sailing/getting underway checklist. I know that your boat already has a good EPIRB installed, but having a PLB on board gives you a back-up alerting device &mdash just in case your Category 1 EPIRB fails to deploy, or you forget to grab that Category 2 EPIRB before abandoning ship, or the EPIRB's complex circuitry malfunctions. Also, the U.S. Coast Guard has recently reported that in 2009 at least three unapproved battery replacements of 406 EPIRB batteries by servicing companies had no association with the beacon manufacturer. Had the commercial fishing boats really needed these beacons in an emergency, they probably would have failed. I have just given you four good reasons to carry a PLB not only on your boat, but on your person, ready for instant use during a life-threatening emergency.

In an earlier time in my life I worked full time as a seven-level Life Support Technician with the California Air National Guard. During this time I inspected and packed a lot of survival equipment for onboard (C-130 Aircraft) and personally worn survival kits. The USAF was partial to ACR electronics for such items as personal strobe lights. Because I worked so long with ACR survival equipment, I must admit that I am also partial toward them and their new PLB known as the ACR AquaLink 406 GPS PLB.

First be warned that there are other products out there that claim to be locator beacons, but there are major differences between them and a true alerting device of last resort, like the AquaLink. These other devices are alerting private companies who may or may not be in business when you truly need them. If they are still in business, the service is not worldwide like the COSPAS/SARSAT system is. The third problem with these other devices is that they transmit at a much lower power level, which means that their signal may not make the trip under certain environmental and/or atmospheric conditions.

The AquaLink is compact and robust; it is approximately 6 inches long and weighs a meager 9.2 ounces. It was designed to float and is waterproof down to 16.4 feet for one hour and down to 33 feet for 10 minutes. It transmits at a very powerful 6.3 watts (406 MHz) for initial alerting and at 50 mW (121.5 MHz) for homing purposes. This little lifesaver has no subscription fees like some of those other devices we talked about. The AquaLink incorporates a super bright LED strobe light that can really help pinpoint your location day or night and make you visible to rescuers. It is equipped with a multi-channel GPS and also has a GPS self-test function. Finally, it has a typical operational transmit time of 35 hours, carries a non-hazmat battery and is made in the good old USA.

If you need anymore incentive to procure and carry one of these marvels of technology and survival equipment, I suggest that you read Steven Callahan's book Adrift: Seventy-Six Days Lost at Sea, or refer to my article "Emergency decision making" in the May/June 2009 edition of Ocean Navigator. Learn about solo-sailor Ken Barnes who went from a rough ride to a life-threatening and life-changing emergency in the span of two minutes!

In closing, I must inform you that our crew and passengers on board that 57 footer were all rescued thanks to the master's back-up PLB. Turns out the EPIRB failed to deploy, but that little handheld PLB got the alert through and the victims are toasting it and each other while retelling their recent adventure.

PS: Don't forget to register your PLB with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the following Web site: www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov.