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EPIRB, PLB, VHF, GPS, SOLAS What Do These Mean?

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What's important in a boat Safety Kit?


What Do These Mean, and Why Are They Important!

If you do not have any communication or location devices on your vessel, you are WRONG!  A lot of these devices have shortened names, or acronyms, and it is imperative that every captain knows what these are and their functions.  Acronyms run wild in the world of safety and rescue.  I will be the first to admit, remembering all of them isn’t something I’m particularly good at; However, it’s important to know the basics.  It is imperative that every captain not only knows what these acronyms stand for, but also what these things do or how they operate.  I can not tell you how many captains I have met in the last 6 months that regularly make crossings to different Caribbean islands with nothing more than a flare and whistle on board.

This is not only unsatisfactory, it’s downright dangerous, not only for the captain, but more importantly for any guests on board as well, obviously.  If there is one thing, I want captains to always keep in the back of their mind, it’s this; No vessel is problem proof, and no level of experience avoids emergency situations.  Any craft, at any time, can have unexpected problems that can potentially leave boaters stranded.  Any captain, at any time, can experience an emergency while underway. It 100% lies on the captain to make sure the crew and/or guests make it safely back to land.  Things like EPIRB’s, ACR PLB’s, Uniden VHF, and Garmin GPS systems help to better ensure everyone’s safe return to land, even in the event of a catastrophe at sea. But, what do all of these mean and what do they do? I am no expert, and please do your own research, but after taking a personal survival course with Maritime Professional Training, it was clear to me that there are more people that don’t know what these are than there should be.  If that is you, please take a moment to review this and hopefully it helps to familiarize you better with your equipment.

Ditchpack.com ACR EPIRB

EPIRB: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon

Most modern day EPIRB’s, like the ACR GlobalFix Pro, are a 5+ watt radio capable of transmitting at 406MHz and 121.5MHz.  Once activated, via water or manual, a signal is sent to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit with a specific serial number registered to that vessel, which the USCG receives.  Once search and rescue vessels or aircraft arrives to within a few miles of the activated EPIRB, the signal from the 121.5MHz is received from a lower flying satellite, allowing for a more concentrated and precise search area.  EPIRB’s can be mounted to the vessel, in which case an auto release should also be installed, this way if it becomes submerged the unit would be released and activated automatically.  Also, captains need to keep in mind the float path of the unit.  Should your vessel go under, the EPIRB will need a clear path to float to the surface and should not be trapped somewhere like a helm locker.  Other captains choose to keep their EPIRB in their Ditch Pack.  This way it is easier to grab, should the need arise.

PLB: Personal Locator Beacon

Personal Locator Beacons, or PLB’s, are very similar to EPIRB’s.  They operate on the same frequencies and are both used to pinpoint the specific location of the person or object they are attached to.  Which brings us to the main difference between EPIRB’s and PLB’s.  Personal Locator Beacons are meant to be just that, personal. EPIRB’s are registered to a vessel, and PLB’s are registered to an individual person. A PLB can easily travel with you on camping trips and other land-based adventures. The PLB’s signal, is not picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, but rather relayed to the closest authority to your location. Which may take a little longer than an        EPRB alert.  Every captain should be wearing a PLB.  In theory, everyone on board should be wearing a PLB, but that can get very pricey.

What is the price of a life? Most captains. unfortunately, do not wear or require their crew or guests to wear a PLB.  75% of the time, the PLB’s stay in a Ditch Pack until they are needed.  As long as the Ditch Pack is kept in an easily accessible area, this should be fine. However, in a “man-overboard” situation, there may not be time to grab the Ditch Pack, and simply wearing a PLB could greatly enhance rescue efforts, should a situation like this arise. Also, keep in mind, unlike EPIRB’s, PLB’s typically do not float on their own; Most companies offer PLB specific flotation, sold separately of course.

HX890BK VHF Radio

VHF Radio: Very High Frequency Radios ( U.S. Coast Guard Channel 16)

VHF radios are probably the most common radio you will see on board every vessel. I even carry the Standard Horizon HX890 handheld unit on board my kayak, every trip. It is the easiest way to get in contact with the USCG (U.S. Coast Guard), as long as you’re in range, should an emergency arise.

With the advancement of li-Ion batteries, the only real constraint on the distance a VHF radio can send and receive communications is the height of the unit’s antenna.  The higher, the better, obviously. Some important features to consider when purchasing a handheld VHF unit is waterproof level, range, and I also only purchase VHF radios that float and have GPS coordinates. It won’t help the USCG rescue crew if you can radio to them, but not tell them your location, a radio with GPS function is essential if the on-board electronics decide to fail. An accessory that a lot of handheld VHF users are starting to purchase, along with the unit itself, is an earpiece with microphone that can connect directly to the VHF. This allows the user to hold the handheld unit above their heads while communicating, thus enhancing the radio’s range. A VHF radio is typically used once a rescue unit is near your location.  Large dash mount VHF radios with long antennas can have a range of up to 60 miles on calm days, handheld units with only a small antenna typically have a communication range of 5 miles or less.


GPS: Global Positioning System:

The Global Positioning System is a 24-satellite network that was initially set up by the Department of Defense, but since the 1980’s has been available for civilians. This system is completely free to use, and most electronics that incorporate a GPS system will automatically connect to this network of satellites.

For an accurate reading on things like, bearing, speed, and distance to a landmark, your unit needs to be in contact with at least 3 orbit satellites.  Garmin has some of the best GPS units on the market, some of which incorporate their WAAS or Wide Area Augmentation System, which greatly enhances the GPS readings, allowing for a 10 ft accuracy when locating the signal. With each satellite completing 2 orbits around the earth each day, no matter where you are at, land or sea, your GPS unit should have no issues finding and connecting to this system.

SOLAS: Safety of Life at Sea:

IMO SOLAS 74 is an international treaty adopted in, you guessed it, 1974.  The Safety of Life at Sea treaty is 14 chapters of regulations covering everything from the construction of a vessel, what safety and survival precautions to take, and even what to do in an abandon ship situation. Every captain should take the time to familiarize themselves with the treaty, not once, but every year, as this treaty is updated every now and then.  This publication can be extremely helpful when it comes to international voyages, as it can help in emergency situations in almost any country with a coast.

A few more that you should, at the very least, familiarize yourself with:

NMEA: National Marine Electronics Association:

Facilitates and supports the development and implementation of standards and uniform government regulations for the marine electronics industry applicable to recreational and regulated vessels.

USCG: United States Coast Guard:

VHF channel 16. The Coast Guard is the principal Federal agency responsible for maritime safety, security, and environmental stewardship in U.S. ports and waterways.

MOB: Man Overboard

PFD: Personal Flotation Device (aka Life Jacket or Vest)

Most boaters, hikers, and adventurers know that preparation is key.  Simply buying a bunch of gear and throwing it all into a ditch pack just won’t cut it.  If you’re going to do dangerous things, you should take the time to familiarize yourself with common acronyms, phrases, equipment, etc. that are associated with what you are doing.  I remember when I first enlisted in the U.S. Army, we were given a book with hundreds of acronyms pertaining to military operations. We were constantly tested and asked about random acronyms and what they mean. The reason for this is that when seconds count in high stress situations, you don’t have time to look up what something means or does, educate yourself before it’s too late.

About the Author

Born in 1985, Eric Clark spent his youth with fish constantly on the brain. Whether it was the Texas coast, the neighborhood creek, or his aunt and uncle’s lake in Indiana, Eric was constantly trying to find a way to get on the water. After spending 7 years in the U.S. Army and 3 years in college, Eric dropped out and decided to take kayak fishing more seriously.  After many years of tournament fishing, Eric moved to sunny South Florida to further entrench himself into the marine industry.  He currently resides in Pompano Beach, Florida with his dog Ace and works as a regional manager for Worldwide Survival Systems.

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