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Old 09-01-2009, 11:00   #1
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When Would You Activate Your EPIRB?

I've read a few threads over the last year regarding sailors who call for the Coast Guard or other rescue agency and abandon their vessels while they're still floating.

Although I've been sailing most of my life, I haven't done any serious offshore sailing. I plan on leaving in about three years aboard my 28' Pearson Triton for some extended cruising to include crossing oceans. When I do, I most likely will only have an EPIRB onboard for emergencies (i.e. no satellite radio, SSB, etc.).

Maybe my thinking will change if I ever find myself in the middle of the ocean and in the middle of a gale, but here's my thinking now--I don't ever plan on activating my EPIRB unless my boat has sunk and I'm sitting in my liferaft. Otherwise...I'll be trying to save my boat and/or weather the storm.

It just seems to me that in most cases, a well-constructed, well-found, and properly equipped sailboat (i.e. storm sails, storm anchor/drogue) will be able to survive most anything the weather and the ocean can dish out.

Am I wrong in thinking this? At what point would other cruisers activate their EPIRB?


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Old 09-01-2009, 11:33   #2
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I agree with your assessment, but would add that I think that the only other situation justifying EPIRB activation is if someone onboard sustains a life-threatening injury or illness and needs to be evacuated in order to survive. Otherwise, tough it out!

I think that in order for a person to be able to ensure that he's psychologically capable of adhering to that philosophy, it would be a good idea for him to actually experience some really challenging offshore conditions (e.g. a three day strong gale or storm) to make sure he is up to the stress and strain (and mal de mer, should it strike). This would be best done on a boat up to the task, with experienced crew along, in case things don't work out.

To me, taking incremental steps toward a major passagemaking goal makes the most sense, testing yourself and the boat at each stage. In my own case, I went out in a couple of nor'easters on the Chesapeake Bay shortly after buying our boat, just to see how it (and I) would do. Then a 'Round Delmarva, and a trip to Bermuda and back before attempting our first Chesapeake to BVI passage.

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Old 09-01-2009, 13:24   #3
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Why no SSB or other will you get weather information in the middle of the ocean? Communicate past 25 miles?
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Old 09-01-2009, 15:15   #4
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Hud is spot on....especially with the life threatening injury.

Here is the reality though......very few life-rafts are ever found with a live person in them. Most life-rafts are found empty or never found at all. When most people that are taken from small craft, the vessel is later found, fending for itself. If a vessel is found by itself, it sometimes has no life-raft on board (as in, the person left the vessel with the life-raft, or attempted to).

A life-raft is almost impossible to get into in foul weather. Rescue from a passing ship or hovering helicopter is extremely dangerous for the rescuer as well as the the person that is being rescued. IMHO, a life-raft is nothing more than a "comfort" devise to have on a small craft. It's practicality is far over-rated IMO. In most cases, it presents a bigger death trap than the distressed vessel that is being abandoned. I never carried a life-raft for these reasons (except on deliveries with crew). They might be better name "Death-trap".

It is my opinion, that any time that a person has, in a distressed vessel, should be used for getting that vessel repaired and to safe harbor, no matter the condition of the vessel, weather or amount of supplies available. To ME a life-raft, is not an option.

Having said all that, I do NOT recommend that philosophy to others. I state this only to make others aware the dangers of thinking that a life-raft is a viable means of escaping a bad situation.

As for the EPIRB.....that is a very, very heavy responsibility. I carried one and would never use it unless death was imminent for myself or a crew member. The use of the EPIRB puts a sailor and rescuer in a VERY precarious situation. In no way, does it guarantee rescue and it always risks the lives of the rescuers. That is a heavy responsibility.

There is seldom a real need for these devices. I think that a sailor MUST take responsibility for himself. Any person that leaves safe harbor to cross an ocean is risking the loss of their life and the lives of others. The risk is minimal IMO but to not posses the ability and no how to save yourself by saving your vessel is careless and irresponsible.

This is the real risk in going to sea...... Not being able to cope with any problem at hand and having to rely on others to get yourself out of a jamb. I would bet that a high % of EPIRB deployment could be avoided if the sailor only new how to repair or jeri-rig his way out of a jamb. To leave shore without that ability is reckless IMO.

On the other hand. An SSB can be a life saving tool without risking the safety of others. It is a way of obtaining helpful advise that may save a life or help you out of a jamb. It is also a companion and way of getting wether reports that can avoid these sort of issues.

I take this topic rather seriously because I have known people personally that did not understand this and found themselves in trouble and a few that died. I also had a close friend that died during a rescue attempt.
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Old 09-01-2009, 15:55   #5
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Originally Posted by Hud3 View Post
I agree with your assessment, but would add that I think that the only other situation justifying EPIRB activation is if someone onboard sustains a life-threatening injury or illness and needs to be evacuated in order to survive. Otherwise, tough it out!
I would say it also depends on the injury and how far away from help you are.

A lot of injuries are life threatening but you cannot expect help in time, even if you are less than 12 miles out in an area with helo-medics or flight nurses. Emergency medicine has a concept called the golden hour. That isn't a lot of time, even if you lengthen it out to six hours. The question then is how urgent is a injury were the patient is stable over a prolonged period of time and could you have avoided it calling for help in the first place?

Personally, I think the best starting place is to look to either those that will end up rescuing you or those that have similar experience and see what their criteria are. In this case I think there is a lot to learn from military medicine. This link addresses the topic

a. Immediate. A casualty in the immediate category requires immediate care if he is to survive. Once a casualty in the immediate category has been treated and the life-threatening or limb-threatening condition controlled (airway obstruction expelled, tourniquet applied, and so forth), the treatment of the casualty's other non-immediate injuries are delayed until the life/limb-threatening conditions of other casualties have been treated. Procedures used are short duration and use only essential medical resources. Examples of casualties in this category include casualties with:

(1) An obstruction of the airway or respiratory distress.
NOTE: A casualty with cardiopulmonary failure in a battlefield situation is categorized as expectant.
(2) Bilateral femur fractures.
(3) Massive external bleeding.
(4) Shock.
(5) Second and/or third degree burns of the face, neck, hands, feet, perineum, and/or genitalia, but with less than 85 percent of the body's surface burned.NOTE: A casualty with second or third degree burns of the face or neck will usually be in shock and have respiratory distress.
(6) Penetrating chest injuries.


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Old 09-01-2009, 17:48   #6
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I agree these assesments. Which is why, I would rather have long range communication capabilities than an epirb if I had to make a choice.

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Old 03-02-2009, 21:52   #7
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I agree with the above comments. When you decide to cross an ocean, you leave Disneyworld behind and must rely on yourself. The EPIRB is a last resort, and if resorted to too soon, may keep you from attempting to patch that hole, jury rig a new mast or whatever it takes to survive the situation without leaving your vessel. Once you leave the commercial airline routes, the EPIRB is of limited usefulness anyway. ( Do they link to satellites now?)And if your signal is received, how many days would it take for a cargo vessel to reach you? (If one was in the area) No. Trying to keep your vessel afloat is your best hope for survival. If your boat sinks and you take to the raft, hope you have a lot of luck and a strong determination to survive. Like Kanani, I've known several people who died at sea. In each case, EPIRB, Ham, Single Sideband etc. wouldn't have changed the outcome. I also knew a Kiwi who had the deck of his boat totally removed when a rougue wave crashed down on him in the Tasman Sea. He managed to jury rig his way back to New Zealand in his "open boat." ( Of course his EPIRB and life raft were swept away, eliminating that option.)
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Old 04-02-2009, 01:51   #8
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Lady C...EPIRBS are satellite received now. I think you are referring to the old MHz. They pretty much work in the cruising zones.
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Old 04-02-2009, 08:34   #9
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Thanks. I assumed they had to be satellite connected these days. Still, once you get several days out to sea, help is not just a phone call away.
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Old 04-02-2009, 08:50   #10

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"( Do they link to satellites now?)And if your signal is received, how many days would it take for a cargo vessel to reach you?"

Actually, the older frequencies are no longer being officially monitored and mariners have been warned for seeral years now that they were going to be abandoned. Aircraft may still monitor the 121.5 frequency but that has been so plagued by false alerts that even if you had an old (OLD) EPRIB using it, the response would be slow at best.

With a modern 406 EPIRB you can expect the signal to be received someplace often within ten minutes, and confirmation and response often within 45 minutes, if I recall average numbers. (Not guaranteed, just common.) As for how fast someone can reach you? Ship traffic may be moving at 20-30 knots (passenger cruise ships often 18-22 knots, military vessels significantly higher) and rescue aircraft may be moving at significantly higher speeds with over a 500 mile range out from their base--including a variety of military vessels launching helos at sea.

That still leaves wide areas with no help expectable, but it sure beats paddling home.
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Old 04-02-2009, 10:48   #11
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I found the best answer to this question right here on this site. A Coast Guardsman was asked when people should activate an Epirb. His answer was "When they think they need to." Think about that very carefully before you respond. Incidents turn into fatalities when a person presses on and adverse circumstances pile up. Its pretty damn condescending to claim they wouldn't happen to me cuz I'm so salty. A survivor is anyone who can stay within his personal limits at that particular moment, and doesn't ignore help because of someone else's armchair appraisal of their personal fortitude!

Everyone has an ego, so just like reefing, when you think of asking for help, you're already overdue.

Kanani: Your summations are not supported in the factual record. What you read in the Press, even the supposedly knowlegeable Press, originates from apocryphal sources, is conveyed like rumor, and "enhanced" to support personal biases or titilate readers' itchies. Empty life rafts can mean someone in them had already been rescued or they were just lost overboard, and floating derelicts are rarely habitable. Leaving a vessel that's still afloat may be a very good decision in any number of likely scenarios.

Why would we comfortably sit in front of our computers and pretend we are better sailors than someone else? We weren't there. And possibly we have never been shown our own limits. Its interesting to note that those who have are far more tolerant of other people's frailties.
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Old 04-02-2009, 10:51   #12
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I met aguy who was rescued by a cargo vessel about fifty miles off Capetown by a freighter bound for brazil. They somehow managed to get his vessel craned and stowed on the deck, but he ended up in Brazil and owed for his passage.
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Old 04-02-2009, 11:00   #13
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On me own (or with crew of freinds or a g/f) I can't say I would buy an EPIRB - which kinda solves that conundrum in advance Not to say I cannot see circumstances where I would regret not doing so

But, if I had kids or a wife onboard then I would get one. And probably not be too shy about hitting the button if I thought it justified.....of course "justified" is the tricky question - especially when you are thinking XX hours / days ahead......albeit I am in the camp of staying on the boat as long as physically possible......but as no plans for wife or kids onboard, plan A seems to be the one I am following..........
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Old 04-02-2009, 12:30   #14
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If I was close enough to shore for it to help I would use the epirb for a man overboard.

I know its meant to be about when the ship is distressed, but 1 crew member being over is enough for me. Any help that could get someone back on board quickly (or at all) would be a reasonable use of EPIRB.

Would anyone not use it for MOB?

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Old 04-02-2009, 12:51   #15
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The bottom-line answer as to when you would activate an EPIRB, IMHO, is:


Re: EPIRBs and satellites, they've ALWAYS been satellite-based. They're essentially worldwide in coverage; if you can't hit one in your cruising area, no doubt you're locked into the ice at one of the poles :-)

The Cospas-Sarsat system was launched some 27 years ago (in 1982) and is credited with saving well over 20,000 people.

The new 406 EPIRBs are superior to the old 121.5 EPIRBs because they are digital and can carry a digital signature. This means that your identity is known immediately and your position can be approximated much faster than with the old system. And, if so equipped, they can transmit your precise location as determined by the built-in GPS.

Note that the 406 EPIRBs also have a built-in 121.5 beacon. This is used for homing purposes by ships and aircraft once they reach your vicinity.

Great devices but, as was said above, not to be deployed lightly.


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