Beacons or devices? How to call for help

With technology advancing so quickly, it can be hard to keep up with the choice of calling-for-help gadgets. Here we outline the options, so you’ll be able to tell your AIS from your PLB.

Beacons or devices? How to call for help

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Most sea-users are aware of the benefits of having a VHF DSC radio at sea. If you’re in trouble you can send a distress alert followed by a voice message. You’ll know that your call will be answered and you’ll give the volunteer lifeboat crews a chance to rescue you. What’s more, lifeboats can home in on your VHF signal, to help find you quicker. DSC-capable VHF radios save lives.

Ocean Sailor Pip Hare using a VHF radio

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Ocean Sailor Pip Hare using a VHF radio

But calling for help isn’t always so straightforward. You could be out of VHF range, there may be an obstacle between you and the mainland, or you may find yourself in the water without the radio. This is why the RNLI advises you to carry a range of means of calling for help.

Currently there are three recognised electronic means of calling for help: VHF DSC, EPIRB and PLB. However, AIS devices are now also available as personal trackers. Here’s an outline of these electronic gadgets, to help you make an informed choice.

Your choice: Beacon or device?

One particular area that may bamboozle the most seasoned sailor is the means of calling for help that you carry on your person. They’re the ones that will help you if you find yourself unexpectedly in the water.

Ocean Sailor Pip Hare explains: ‘On the market now there’s a phenomenal range of personal calling-for-help tools. They all look pretty similar but there’s a major difference between them.’ Your two options are currently a personal locator beacon or a personal location device.

Personal locator beacons

PLBs use search and rescue satellites to send a message to the Coastguard that clearly says you’re in trouble. The Coastguard then sends a lifeboat out to the GPS position given from the PLB.

They work on the 406MHz distress frequency. The beacon also operates using a 121.5MHz frequency, which means lifeboats can home in on the device once they get closer. Importantly, a beacon is a recognised way of calling for help. Pip summarises: ‘A PLB is effectively a mini personal version of the EPIRB.’

PLB benefits:

  • Unlimited range, so you can get help from anywhere in the world with this beacon. If you’re considering going anywhere outside A1 GMDSS sea area, the PLB is the one for you.
  • As a beacon is a recognised way of calling for help, you can rely on an immediate reaction from the Coastguard.

PLB limitations:

  • Manual activation only, so you must be conscious and able to hold it up out of the water with the antenna pointing at the sky. They aren’t made to float.
  • It needs to be registered with the Coastguard. It belongs to you only, so you can’t lend it to friends.
An RNLI crew member takes a breath during a man overboard drill in Poole Harbour

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

An RNLI crew member takes a breath during a man overboard drill in Poole Harbour

Personal location devices

Devices use AIS – the system that uses VHF to identify ships as they’re going along – to transmit your location. They send a message by AIS, which can be picked up by all AIS receiving stations within range, including commercial ships and other leisure vessels. A device does give a location but isn’t a recognised way of calling for help. AIS devices have a range of up to 5 miles in open water.

AIS device benefits:

  • If you fall overboard, especially in the dark, it gives your crew the power to find you quickly.
  • When that AIS device goes off, everybody in the vicinity (around 5 miles in open water) who has an AIS receiver onboard will be able to see where you are. They are likely to assume it’s a call for help. Pip has seen this work in practice: ‘I was recently sailing along the Dutch coast when someone’s personal AIS device went off accidentally. Almost immediately, three vessels in the vicinity notified the coastguard and then one of them radioed our vessel to see if it was us.’
  • They can be automatically activated. Automatic and semi-automatic ones will activate even if you’re unconscious.
  • It doesn’t need to be registered. You can loan it to others.
  • The latest development in AIS device technology is the inclusion of DSC in some packages. So your crew will hear a DSC alert, even if they don’t get an AIS audible signal. Some can also send out an all-ships distress alert, depending on the country.

AIS device limitations:

  • Range of around 5 miles in open water. Because it uses VHF, the closer you get into the coast or any obstruction, then the lower that range will be. Even in A1 on the GMDSS sea area map, it’s possible that the AIS may not reach anyone.
  • It’s not an internationally recognised way of calling for help. The Coastguard does not recognise it as a call for help. Currently, the Coastguard doesn’t get an audible alarm, or an emergency signal.
  • Not all AIS receivers display the same information (depending on chart plotter, software updates and AIS receiver). The latest kit gives an audible alarm and circle with cross. Many sets won’t do an audible alarm. Some sets won’t even see the symbol. Test your kit to check (inform the Coastguard first).
Calling for help gadgets illustration

The future

‘This is a rapidly developing arena,’ enthuses Pip. ‘Satellite communications and calling for help is just on fire at the moment. The specs are being developed, tech’s getting smaller, and our ability to track things and people on satellite is getting bigger and better.’

Here are some things on the horizon:

  • In America, certified combinations of AIS devices and PLBs are expected to be available in 2017.
  • Iridium (a US satellite communications company) will join GMDSS network as soon as 2018. They make a relatively cheap communications device with tracker plus a means of calling for help (currently SOS button goes to somewhere in Texas).
  • MEOSAR (mid-earth orbiting search and rescue) satellite should be online in 2018. It will enable two-way communication via EPIRB and PLBs (initially in the form of an acknowledgement).

You might be tempted to postpone buying an electronic means of calling for help for a year or 2, but the RNLI recommends you don’t delay. Here’s the last word from Pip, recommending belt and braces: ‘If you’ve got both PLB and AIS, you’re able to properly call for help and call everybody in the vicinity at the same time.’

The choice is yours.

This story first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Offshore magazine. Learn more about RNLI Offshore membership, for those who use the sea for fun.