The ocean is a beautiful, but unforgiving environment. Weather conditions can turn quickly or a large wave can hit and a nice day on the ocean can soon become a life threatening ordeal. How many accidents occur at sea and how serious are they? Is there anything boaters can do to help limit the loss of life when disaster strikes?

The US Coast Guard maintains annual statistics on boating accidents, available to the public through the Boating Accident Resource Center. In 2008, the Coast Guard logged 4789 accidents resulting in 709 total deaths. Only 348 of these accidents-a mere 7%-involved boats capsizing, but these accidents accounted for 163, or 32%, of reported drowning deaths. Flooding or swamping of boats led to another 80 drowning deaths and 89 total fatalities.

A major problem with capsizing or flooding accidents is that they can occur suddenly, so suddenly in fact that boaters may not be able to send out a distress call. You know everyone who was in a boat that capsized was thinking, “I never expected the boat to suddenly capsize!” They may not have been wearing life vests, although these were on board the boat, and they may have wound up with both no life vests and no ability to signal for distress. Even if someone had a personal locator beacon for the trip, he might not be able to reach or use it unless he actually had it on his person at the time disaster struck. Remember also that when a boat capsizes or floods it can suffer water damage to its electronics, disabling its communication and navigation systems even if these can be reached physically by the crew.

An EPIRB (Electronic Position Indicator Radio Beacon) can help to summon rescuers, even when a disaster strikes quickly. A category I EPIRB will float free and emit a distress signal automatically when a boat sinks. This is exactly what happened recently (February 2010) when the 57-meter SV Concordia foundered suddenly and sank off the coast of Brazil. The vessel reportedly foundered within 15 seconds and sank within 20 minutes. Luckily, the Concordia was equipped with an EPIRB. Its hydrostatic release functioned as designed, so the EPIRB released from its bracket and floated to the surface to emit a 406 MHz distress signal. All passengers and crew were successfully rescued by the Brazilian Coast Guard. EPIRBs can also be activated manually, of course. (Category II EPIRBs do require manual activation.)

Many EPIRB models made today are also GPS-equipped and will broadcast your location within 100m to search-and-rescue forces by a 406 MHz signal. Rescuers can also determine a rough location by Doppler localization for non-GPS equipped EPIRBs, but the position resolution is only within a couple of nautical miles and it takes time to resolve the location by moving weather satellites. Marine EPIRBs also generally broadcast a 121.5 MHz homing signal and are usually equipped with a strobe.

You can expect 48+ hours of life once activated for a category I EPIRB. Batteries typically need to be replaced every 5-6 years. A hydrostatic release unit may need to be replaced every couple of years. Also, you must register an EPIRB device and remember to keep this information up-to-date. The registry information specifies data such as your name and phone number and the name and type of boat you have.

If you spend lots of time offshore, an EPIRB is well worth the investment. Serious accidents at sea, such as a vessel capsizing, do not occur very often but can be quite devastating when they do. An EPIRB really could save your life one day-just ask the passengers and crew of the SV Concordia.

J. White runs the GPS Chartplotter store, which sells gps chartplotter [] and gps fishfinder [] equipment as well as PLB and EPIRB devices for boats.

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