- ALWAYS wear a PFD. If it’s an inflatable one, get it checked annually and wear a crotch strap to save it sliding up. Manually inflatable PFDs have the disadvantage that you may not be able to inflate it if you’re incapacitated.
- Get a PLB, Spot, Garmin InReach or other emergency communications and tracking device and wear it on your PFD. (VHF Radio or mobile phone in waterproof case are OK for backup but harder to use if you’re in the water and need to summon emergency assistance compared to pressing a single button)
- Wear bright colours and consider getting a waterproof emergency strobe light. Wear a hat for sun protection and also visibility in the water.
- Wear the right gear for the water temperature. While it may be a hot day, the water temperature can be much cooler. If winds over 15 knots are predicted you’re going to get wet and the wind chill can make it feel even colder.
If you do capsize, cold water can quickly sap your strength and affect your ability to make rational decisions. Wear layers and put on more of them before you get cold. Put a spray top below deck for use if the wind gets up. Look for products that don’t absorb water (e.g. Polypropylene) not cotton.
- Download the local Marine Rescue app for your location to your mobile phone and register your boat and emergency contacts. When you’re setting off, enter your journey details and expected time of return. Tell someone where you’re going and your intended return time. Share your location via a tracking app (e.g. Friend Finder on iPhone) or tracking device (e.g. Spot or InReach).
- Always hook a foot under a hiking strap, especially if sailing in rough conditions. If you don’t have the central strap, you need one about 80cm long attached to the pad-eye in the centre of the cockpit, over some bungee under the mainsheet block and tied to the rear pad-eye.
Weta Harness and TetherWeta used to supply the harness and tether as an option because it supported the torso when hiking from the amas and it was thought that the safety implications of keeping with the boat if you came off was better than having the boat sail away from you – which can happen because of the built-in stability.
However, after a number of incidents when Weta sailors with the harness got into trouble – either because the tether caught on something, they failed to release the quick release or they were dragged behind the boat for long distances – it was decided that the safety implications of the harness were not worth the risks and it was withdrawn.
Also with modern buoyancy aids and location beacons, it’s much easier to get someone to rescue you from the water – even if you become separated from the boat.
NOTE If you must use the harness and it won’t fit over your PFD, get a larger climbers chest harness to wear over it (e.g. Black Diamond Vario) or a PFD that allows for the harness.
IMPORTANT Don’t use the harness unless you have practiced undoing it one handed without looking – you may not be able to see the release toggle if you’re in the water.
This article does not include EPIRB units as they are relatively heavy and aimed at larger yachts and they assume the boat is being rescued and not an individual in the water.
Personal Locator Beacon (PLB)
A PLB is a small, relatively low-cost, battery-powered device. When activated, a PLB will send out a distress signal once every 50 seconds for a minimum of 24 hours unless it is turned off. Search and Rescue technology aboard helicopters and response boats can now home in on the signal of a transmitting PLB. A PLB sends a coded message, including your location, on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest Rescue Coordination Centre, usually the Coast Guard. The Centre then notifies local Search and Rescue assets.
NOTE Some PLBs don’t offer GPS—make sure you get one that does.
Unlike an EPIRB, a PLB is registered to the person, not a boat. However, PLBs require a little more effort to operate since they must be manually activated with the antenna out of the water and in clear view of the sky for maximum efficiency. Waterproof PLBs are small enough to carry on your person, making them suitable for you to attach to your life jacket (don’t put it below deck!). Recreational sailors often choose a PLB instead of an EPIRB because they can also use it when hiking, camping, or enjoying other land-based activities. Like EPIRBs, PLBs must be registered.
Pro Inexpensive and small size. No communications subscription required. Single button activation for rescue alert.
Con No 2-way communication and no verification that emergency services are on their way. No ability to integrate with mobile phone or separate GPS.
PLB vs. Mobile Phone
With satellite-fed maps on every smartphone, getting lost seems like a problem from a past era. But if you capsize and your phone is in the dry bag below deck or you it doesn’t have a waterproof cover, it’s not going to be much use if you get separated from the boat. So make an additional investment by having a PLB on every person’s life jacket.
While a phone can be protected with a waterproof cover (e.g. Lifeproof) or pouch, the touch sensor may not work in water or when your hands are cold and wet.
A PLB is waterproof and you simply hit a button to activate the rescue signal. Life jackets will keep you afloat, knowing navigation rules will help keep you out of harm’s way, a marine band VHF-FM radio or GPS can help lead rescuers to you, and lodging your activity plan assists in the emergency notification process—but having a properly registered and transmitting PLB will drastically improve your chances of surviving an emergency on the water. It will get you rescued faster and more efficiently than ever before.
Pros: With your mobile phone, you can speak directly to Search And Rescue (SAR) personnel, give them your position, and receive instructions. Modern smartphones can also provide you with GPS data and backup navigational abilities and forecasts.
Cons: For sailing in enclosed waters a phone is usually fine, but the range is obviously limited. Even if you always sail within sight of land, they can’t always be depended upon to get a signal. Also in an emergency in the water, you’re likely to have to unlock the phone and then call for rescue – which may be OK if you’re sitting on a boat with dry hands but it’s much harder to do when in the water when your hands are cold and wet.
While a phone can be protected with a waterproof cover (e.g. Lifeproof) or pouch, the touch sensor may not work in water or when your and they don’t have a single emergency button you can press.
Waterproofing a Phone
You may think that buying a recent phone with IP68 waterproof rating is going to be fine, even in a wet boat like the Weta. But the waterproof rating doesn’t include seawater and doesn’t include water projected at speed (as you might find if you get ejected in a pitchpole while going fast downwind). Lifeproof and other waterproof cases fully enclose your phone while still allowing you to charge it.
A cheaper option may be to get a pouch type phone cover with a roll-over seal but you may find it harder to operate the touch screen.
Worth every penny if you value your phone and data or want to use Weather and Marine Rescue tracking apps.
Waterproof case review here
Maritime Rescue Apps
You can improve the mobile phone safety benefits by installing a Maritime Rescue App (varies by Country and State) and registering your vessel. You enter details of your journey and intended return and the rescue services will know where you’re heading and when you’re due to return, so they can quickly start a search if you’re not back when expected.
Some offer an extra live safety tracking option, automatically updating your position every 30 minutes to track your journey which can also be accessed by friends and family.
Apps also provide a range of additional safety tools and information that could help save lives in an emergency including local tide, weather and sea conditions, latitude/longitude location, a safety checklist for before you head out and emergency call procedures.
VHF Radio With DSC
It’s simple to operate, communications goes both ways, and, with a properly installed DSC (Digital Selective Calling) radio, when you hit the emergency button, the SRS will automatically get your exact GPS position, they’ll know you’re sending a distress call, and they’ll know who you are. DSC radios retransmit any emergency signals they receive, so as long as another boat with a DSC-equipped VHF receives your transmission, the effective range of a distress call can be many times greater than your VHF range. VHFs are also relatively inexpensive, easy to install, and virtually all of the models on the market today are rugged and reliable.
For Weta use you are going to need a radio that floats and is waterproof to IPX8 or better.
Cons: The biggest downfall of VHF with DSC is the same as it is for all VHF radios: Your range is limited by the curvature of the Earth. Antenna height plays a big role here, as can atmospheric conditions. A handheld unit may only have a range of a mile or two (2-3Km), especially if you’re calling while in the water and VHF station coverage isn’t universal, especially in remote areas (although other vessels may hear your transmissions). In fact in some locations, a mobile phone may provide a better signal than VHF but it’s better to ask locals before you set out.
Finally, if you have a DSC-capable VHF, it will only give your position if you also have a GPS to pair it with or it has a built-in GPS. You need to make sure it’s properly interfaced with your GPS to give position data and it needs to be registered with a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number. In addition, you need to have a licence to operate a VHF radio in most countries and follow the VHF communications etiquette.
Communication standards vary from one region to another. Most of the hand-held units can cope with multiple regions but you may need to make adjustments in the settings.
Pros: Satellite Messengers use satellite communications to bounce a short text message to an individual party or, in times of need, to emergency responders. When you hit the SOS button, these transmissions include your exact GPS position in the data feed. These units are extremely small (the size of a mobile phone or smaller), inexpensive, rugged, waterproof, and are easy to operate. Some allow for two-way communications via an integrated keyboard, some use Bluetooth to pair with a cell phone and allow two-way texting via an app, and some allow only one-way texting of pre-typed messages. They run on either store-bought lithium or rechargeable internal batteries, and while operating times vary, can generally send out their messages for days at a time.
Cons: Satellite Messengers use commercial networks rather than the Cospas-Sarsat system, so they charge for airtime and are sold with a monthly or yearly service contract (ranging from about $100 to $500 per year depending on service level).
Your SOS transmission does not go directly to the Rescue Coordination Center but to the corporate GEOS Emergency Response Coordination Center, which then ascertains the proper SAR agency to contact, adding another step into the emergency-response process.
Also, the different units’ capabilities vary widely depending on the type of unit and service you choose. While some allow for two-way communications, others can only transmit, not receive. And in some cases, they can only transmit a distress signal. There is a trade off between battery life, reliability of communication and the complexity of the device. Also the different satellite systems used can affect the signal in remote areas.
Review of messenger devices here
Messenger Device vs PLB
Personal locator beacons (PLBs) predate the original Spot and have only one function: broadcasting an SOS message. They do not send or receive non-emergency texts, retrieve weather forecasts, or pair with a smartphone to enable GPS navigation.
In water visibility
If you are separated from your boat in rough conditions, it can be hard for rescuers to spot you. GPS and devices will bring rescuers to within 100m of your location but may not be accurate enough for them to spot you in the water.
LED Strobe flares
LED strobe beacons are IP68 waterproof, can be attached to a PDF or put in a pocket and don’t need to be replaced – just change the batteries regularly.
LED Flare vs Traditional Flare
While waterproof traditional flares are available and have better visibility in daylight, they are expensive, have a limited shelf life and need to be stored securely. There are also Chemlights (aka Glow Sticks) some of which are aimed at emergency marine use but they are only really visible at night so not much use for day sailing.
These are long inflatable tubes made from high-vis material designed to draw attention to your location – often used by scuba divers. Probably most useful when combined with a PLB/Messaging device to bring rescuers searching for you rather than used on their own, since other boaters may not understand the significance of the tube. They can be inflated by mouth or some have a small compressed air cylinder.
Review of emergency signalling gear here