Gear Up for Sailing Season
Sailors can thank recently adopted commercial-shipping regulations for a new generation of electronic emergency beacons. These devices are designed to connect vessels in distress via satellite to a global network of rescue centers, while also broadcasting Automatic Identification System alerts over marine radio channels to (potentially) summon help that much quicker.
Florida-based ACR Electronics and its UK sister company, Ocean Signal, are the first to take advantage of the new rules. They are set to go with products expected to be approved by US regulators and made widely available this winter.
For mariners, this merging of satellite and VHF-radio-frequency technologies in a single device—either an emergency position indicating radio beacon or a personal locator beacon—is a game-changer. In a crisis, this tech will ensure that a request for assistance will be broadcast to as wide a net of potential rescuers as possible.
McMurdo, which was first to develop an EPIRB with AIS capabilities, currently has its SmartFind G8 model on the market, though the device still needs modifications to meet some aspects of the new rules announced in July by the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Safety Committee.
Since the 1980s, mariners have relied on a vessel’s EPIRB to broadcast emergency alerts to authorities via a network of satellites and ground stations. Though thousands of lives have been saved by the global COSPAS-SARSAT network, it can take time for distress calls to be processed and for help to arrive. And in a crisis, time is of the essence.
In more recent years, as electronic components shrank in size and battery life increased, PLBs were introduced, allowing sailors to affix them to, say, a life jacket and take them along from boat to boat. These PLBs rely on the same emergency network as EPIRBs.
With the advent of AIS, electronics manufacturers also developed personal AIS beacons, whose signals can be picked up by AIS transponders on nearby vessels. The benefit here is that should you go overboard, your own crew will be alerted, and in coastal waters, other boats equipped with AIS may be able to respond quickly. The drawback, though, is that the range of the beacons is limited to just a few miles, so if there are no other vessels around, or if your crewmates are asleep or distracted, the signal could go unnoticed.
ACR’s GlobalFix V5 AIS EPIRB and its ResQLink AIS Personal Locator Beacon both contain satellite and local communication transponders. The dual-purpose EPIRB is a result of the IMO’s new rules for commercial vessels. Meanwhile, developers were able to take advantage of more-efficient electronics and better batteries to also produce the new lineup of ResQLink beacons. Similar products are sold under the Ocean Signal brand and include the rescueMe EPIRB3 and the rescueMe PLB3. (The latter, winner of the Metstrade 2022 Overall Dame Award, will be available only in Europe; the ResQLink, with identical technology in a different exterior case, will be sold in the Americas.)
Mikele D’Arcangelo, ACR’s vice president of global marketing and product management, says that the new AIS PLBs are compact enough to fit the majority of the inflatable PFDs on the market.
Both the ACR and Ocean Signal products offer a couple of other features that D’Arcangelo says improve upon existing technology. Previous models have included strobe lights, but the new beacons contain infrared strobes as well, making them more visible in daylight and low-visibility conditions, another IMO requirement.
The EPIRBs and PLBs also offer smartphone connectivity, using near-field communication technology. By placing a phone with the ACR or Ocean Signal app near the beacon, a user can capture data about battery life, beacon programming, the number and results of self-tests, and GPS test locations. Again, D’Arcangelo says, technology was key here. By using a chip similar to what’s imbedded in credit cards, data can be transferred without using power from the beacon’s battery; the phone provides the power instead.
The EPIRBs and beacons also have Return Link Service, which receives a signal from the satellite network and alerts the user that a call for help has successfully gone out and been received by authorities.
The street price for the ResQLink AIS PLB is just under $500; the price for an automatic GlobalFix V5 is around $930, and the manual version goes for less than $800. Online, you will find the McMurdo SmartFind 8, Category 2, for about $600. Category 1 EPIRBs automatically release from their bracket when submerged, while Category 2 devices need to be manually activated.
Keep In Touch
If your sailing adventures take you out of cellular-phone range, you can still communicate with friends and family—and, in an emergency, rescue authorities—with Garmin’s inReach Mini Marine Bundle, which includes all the cables and mounting hardware you need to be on your way. The inReach Mini can network with other onboard instruments such as a Garmin smartwatch and chart plotter, and you can use it to update weather forecasts, send and receive texts, and let others track your voyage. If things go wrong, it will send SOS messages to authorities, all across the Iridium satellite network. The inReach Mini’s rechargeable battery can last up to 90 hours in tracking mode with 10-minute updates, and up to 24 days in 30-minute tracking power-save mode. It’s listed online for around $400. A service subscription is extra.
Also helping you to stay in touch with the world back home is Raymarine’s YachtSense Link, a marine router that will let you network onboard gear such as your Axiom chart plotter, phone, tablet and laptop. Combine the router with Raymarine’s mobile app, and you’ll be able to monitor onboard devices such as pumps, batteries and lighting, and you can monitor your sailboat by setting up a geofence. Online prices start at about $1,200.
How We Doin’, Coach?
Some sailors take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to sail trim. Others will endlessly fiddle with sheets, vang, backstay and traveler, with one eye on the speedo and the other watching for puffs that might add a little more speed over ground. If you fall in the latter camp, Sailmon has you covered with its Max Mini, an onboard tracker that records your every tack and jibe, and, back home, replays your voyage with lots of data to see just how sharp you were at the wheel. With the Mini paired to your phone, you can monitor your speed, heading and angle of heel, and later analyze what had you going fast so that next time, you can minimize what had you stuck in the slow lane. You can also share data with the larger Sailmon community in the spirit of friendly competition. Think of the Mini as your own personal performance coach, whose services will run you a one-time cost of right around $500.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Products in this story were nominated for or received Innovation Awards or other notable awards during 2022 trade and boat shows, including Metstrade, the Miami International Boat Show, the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference, and the Newport International Boat Show.
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