There are parts of Scotland’s west coast where hand-held VHFs are out of range, there’s no mobile phone signal and it’s unlikely anyone would see a flare. Sometimes all three.

Should a safety conscious sea-kayaker consider carrying an Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or a the new, smaller Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)? I asked a question like this two years ago after listening to a talk by a Stornoway Coastguard at the Skye Symposium.

It prompted a lively thread on the Forum which I’ve recently re-visited after discovering the McMurdo Fast Find for £249.

However as contributors to the forum pointed out, the accuracy and speed of response seemed much better in the McMurdo FastFind Plus for £399.

I e-mailed the McMurdo to check if there really was such a difference. There is.

The FastFind (non-GPS) version has a 45 minute speed-of-alert and 5 km accuracy, which puts your location somewhere inside a 20 square kilometer box.

The FastFind Plus (GPS version) has a 3 minute speed-of-alert and 50 meter accuracy. For a sea-kayaker in trouble, probably in the water, there’s no real contest. It would have to be the GPS version.

I’ll start saving.

This is the information sent by McMurdo:

An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is used to alert search and rescue services in the event of an emergency. They do this by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency. This message is relayed via satellite and earth station to the nearest rescue co-ordination centre.

406 MHz EPIRBs and PLBs work with the Cospas-Sarsat polar orbiting satellite system which provides true global coverage. The system has an alert delay of typically 45 minutes dependant on when the satellites come into view on the horizon.

The satellite can determine the position of your Smartfind E5 EPIRB or Fastfind PLB to within 5km (3 miles). The coded message identifies the exact vessel to which the E5 is registered or the person the Fastfind PLB is registered to. This information allows the rescue services to eliminate false alerts and launch an appropriate rescue.

The GPS enabled Smartfind Plus G5 406 MHz EPIRB and Fastfind Plus PLB have built-in transmitters that will alert the rescue services in typically 3 minutes, giving typical positional accuracy of about 50 metres, and positional updates every 20 minutes.

Both the Smartfind EPIRBs and Fastfind PLBs also have a secondary distress transmitter. This transmits on 121.5 MHz and is used for "homing" purposes. When the rescue services get close, this allows them to direction find on the signal. To cater for searches at night, the Smartfind EPIRBs have a high brightness LED flashing light that aids final visual location.

5 Comments Here:

styrheim said...

OK, we can have a GPS that is able to communicate our position.

Now we just need a protocol to get our position blipped in on the radars of the big ships, before we get in an emergency situation. (OK, that would require more frequent position updates than every 20 minute.)

Simon Willis said...

Hi styrheim

Did you have a bad experience with one of these ships?

The PLB is for when everything has gone to pieces and you're screaming "mayday", but agreed, some sort of radar reflector would be handy.

Adam has three posts about research into radar and kayaks on his Blog here:

Simon Willis said...

That should be

Douglas Wilcox said...

Hi Simon, you might also look at ACR epirbs. Thjey have gps models but differ from mcmurdo in having an extending arial for when you are in the drink and need every bit of juice to catch the satellite's attention. I have had one for two years now and compared to a lot of other kayaking kit I think tjhey are great value for money and pretty much essential.

Simon Willis said...

Thanks Douglas, I'll take a look. Mind you, both of these PLBs have aerials which leap out when triggered. Perhaps you've got to do it right or your problems are compounded by an eye injury!