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No more messages in bottles

Oct 21, 2010

Like many other traditional uses of the printed word, the era of mariners sending messages in a bottle may finally be over thanks to digital technology and the increasing use of text messaging on devices that formerly did not offer messaging features. The advent of new devices and systems now allow those in trouble to not only send for help via satellite technology, but also to send short text messages to just let loved ones or friends know that you are OK and where you are, or what the nature of your distress might be. One new device packages all this with extensive GPS positioning/mapping/charting capabilities. You can even connect with social networking sites using your satellite emergency beacon/messenger.

For many voyagers, the ultimate fallback position, when all else has failed and they are about to step up into a life raft, is to reach for and deploy the EPIRB beacon that transmits an SOS message via Cospas-Sarsat satellites to rescue authorities. With the addition of a built-in GPS or a connection to an external GPS, this emergency signal can now provide an accurate position, cutting way down on potential rescue times.

But, when all is going well, if satellite phone, SSB, or other radio contact can’t be made with shore, how do you contact those at home to let them know that you are OK? Or for that matter, how do you let them know where you are and what you are up to?

I’m OK, you’re OK
Have you ever pushed the test button on your EPIRB and wondered if the thing was really working? One answer to this problem is 406Link.com, which can both confirm a self-test of your 406 MHz EPIRB and is a way to send an “I’m OK” message along with your GPS position. 406Link.com is an optional service from a U.K. company, Cobham, that is marketed and sold in the U.S. by ACR Electronics starting at $39.95 per year. It works with any recent 406 MHz EPIRB, including personal locator beacons (PLBs) that have an external antenna, but not units that only deploy an antenna in the case of emergencies. Some older EPIRBs do not transmit a signal to the satellites during a self-test, which means a message is not sent that 406Link.com can detect. A list of units that work with 406Link.com is on the Web site. It does not work with the SPOT system (more about that later).

A user subscribes for either the Basic or the Plus service. The Plus service includes messaging to up to five contacts and costs $59.95 per year. The service then “listens” to the messages being transmitted via the Cospas-Sarsat system using two GEOSAR satellites, and if it detects a self-test from your registered beacon SMS text messages are sent to your e-mail account and/or up to five telephone numbers. If the EPIRB is equipped or connected to a GPS the “I’m OK” message includes your GPS coordinates, so that family and friends know you are safe and where you are located.

At this time there is 406Link.com coverage over a good portion of the globe, including most of the North and South Atlantic, and the Pacific Ocean out to the coast of Australia. Coverage for the rest of the world is coming soon, according to the company.

If for no other purpose, 406Link.com can provide the peace of mind that when you test your EPIRB it is really capable of informing someone that you need help.

Texting from your life raft
The SPOT emergency beacon system, which utilizes Globalstar communication satellites, was designed as a simpler, lower-cost alternative to carrying a larger EPIRB or a PLB. Pressing the emergency button prompts the SPOT system through the GEOS International Emergency Response Center to notify 911 (on land in the U.S.), the Coast Guard, or other rescue organizations of your location. Until recently, SPOT could only be used to call for help or to let someone know that all is fine.

There are three basic SPOT units. The Personal Tracker ($99.99) is mainly for emergencies and for notifications that you are OK and where you are. The GPS Messenger ($169.99) adds the ability to send a custom text message along with your location. These units have become very popular amongst backcountry hikers, adventurers into remote regions, and boaters.

The DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w ($549.95) is a GPS-enabled SPOT emergency beacon coupled with a DeLorme GPS-positioning and mapping device that includes the capability of sending one-way text messages via the SPOT beacon. All of these SPOT devices require a $99.99 per year subscription to the basic SPOT service, and there are additional services that can be purchased.

With the DeLorme unit, for an additional fee you can send short 40-character messages to friends and family, and you can even send messages to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and some unique sites like geocaching.com and SPOTadventures.com. The manufacturer touts the device as a way to keep everyone informed of your travels, or to alert them to the nature of your distress. It is possible to set things up so you are automatically tracked and your position is sent to whom you choose. Of course, you can also be boring and just send an “I’m OK” message along with your GPS position. Individual messages are $0.50 each or $49.99 for up to 500 messages (keep your teenagers away from it!).

SPOT devices require an unobstructed view of the sky, and at times there may be delays in messaging if there are obstructions, however coverage is much more extensive than any terrestrial cell phone network.

The DeLorme unit comes complete with a full set of U.S. and Canadian topo maps, as well as the full suite of NOAA marine charts covering all U.S. waters.

SPOT units are less expensive than EPIRBs, but they do have less coverage of the world’s oceans, though most popular cruising coastlines are included, along with the waters hundreds of miles offshore. I wonder how long it will be before texting-while-sailing is made a crime?

AIS isn’t for texting
The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is required aboard many commercial ships, and is being gradually adopted by voyagers on smaller boats. The main purpose of AIS is to disseminate and share important navigational information amongst vessels within VHF radio range of each other, though the U.S. Coast Guard is developing a Nationwide AIS (NAIS) system that will utilize satellites and buoys to cover all U.S. waters.

At this time, vessels with the appropriate Class A equipment (generally found on commercial ships) can also send short (up to 156 characters) “safety related” text messages. It would seem that this could be another valuable tool during search and rescue operations, but the Coast Guard warns that there are certain limitations in place. A Coast Guard alert stated: “AIS users should be aware of the current limitations regarding their use: they may not be received, recognized or acted upon by the Coast Guard or other competent authorities or maritime first-responders.” Another alert stated: “...AIS must not be relied upon as the primary means for broadcasting distress or urgent communications...”

In that same alert the Coast Guard states, however, that AIS messaging functions “can augment” the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). The Coast Guard further warns that not all Class B AIS user (the class of AIS unit most likely to be found aboard most pleasure vessels) information is available to all Class A AIS-equipped ships. For example, a Class B vessel’s name or call sign may not appear on all Class A displays at this time. In other words, you may show up on a big ship’s AIS plot, but they might not know how to call you to tell you what is happening or to ask if you can get out of the way.

With further developments coming in the NAIS, there may come a time when all vessels, both pleasure (of a certain size) and commercial, will be required to utilize AIS at all times, and at that point the text messaging and rescue capability of the system may become a critical tool during search and rescue and other safety-related situations. One company, Weatherdock Inc., has created a personal AIS rescue beacon that can be used now. The easyRESCUE is a small, waterproof, portable, GPS-equipped AIS unit that can trigger an alert on all AIS-equipped vessels within VHF radio range. Jotron also makes the Tron AIS-SART (search and rescue transponder), though these units are not currently capable of sending text messages.

Of course, in many parts of the U.S. that would be within VHF radio range (required by AIS) there may also be cell phone coverage and, of course, there should also be VHF radio equipment aboard your boat equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC) distress capabilities. Naturally, in an emergency, vessels should use all means to call for help and/or to explain the situation, but it is wise to reach for the marine units that are part of the organized GMDSS first.

Belt and braces
Even if your voyaging boat already includes one or more EPIRBs, one can see that it would be highly desirable to also have the location, mapping, and texting capabilities of the latest DeLorme SPOT device for an adventure in the life raft. Wouldn’t it be great to know where you are, where you are drifting, and that you can tell your loved ones that all is OK? The small size, relative low cost, and waterproof construction of the new device make the idea feasible, though the subscription fees for the various services might be a deterrent.

And when you’re closer to the coast or near shipping lanes, a small, portable AIS unit, like the easyRESCUE, would be a great way to alert nearby ships or fellow voyaging craft that you need help.

An advantage of this belt-and-braces approach to emergency notification is that SPOT, EPIRBs, and AIS utilize different communication systems, and none of them require a tether to a large power supply or a huge antenna. The SPOT devices can run on widely available, standard-sized lithium batteries, and even alkaline batteries (though not recommended for best performance) may work in a pinch.

There are handheld satellite phones, like Iridium and Globalstar, and the new Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro just becoming available, that could also provide life raft or emergency communications nearly worldwide, but they are all much bulkier, more expensive, require fairly expensive subscriptions, and Iridium and Globalstar units do not include GPS navigation capabilities (the new Inmarsat phone will be able to provide GPS location data). The phones do offer the highly desirable feature of two-way voice communication, in contrast to SPOT, EPIRB, and AIS one-way messaging. One big disadvantage of handheld phones in a life raft is that currently available units are not waterproof, though they have some water resistance.

It is easy to imagine a near future in which we all voyage with handheld GPS/charting/telephone/EPIRB/texting/AIS/satellite/GMDSS devices.


John Kettlewell is the author of The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook and the co-author of The Intracoastal Waterway: The Complete Cockpit Cruising Guide.

EPIRBs, PLBs, and services
ACR Electronics:
www.acrelectronics.com
www.406Link.com
GME:
www.gme.net.au
Kannad Marine (a brand of McMurdo Ltd.):
www.kannadmarine.com
McMurdo:
www.mcmurdo.co.uk

SPOT products
DeLorme:
www.delorme.com
SPOT:
www.findmespot.com

Portable AIS
Jotron:
www.jotron.com
Weatherdock:
www.easyais.com

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