March 18, 2014

What to do When the EPIRB Goes Off

Evan just wrote about updating our EPIRB. Then we argued for a while about where to keep the thing. Ev says it should go in our ditch bag, which is stored in an easy grab location. Our old EPIRB used to be wall mounted in the port hull until I had a long (and very, very detailed) nightmare about being capsized and trying to get into the port hull and find the thing. Which given its location near Maia’s books and toys meant it was both under water and buried beneath piles of stuffed animals). Seriously—the memory of that nightmare made me ditch half her stuffies and come up with a plan B for the EPIRB.

I’m still not convinced the ditch bag is the best location. But we have two EPIRBs so we’ll keep the new one in the ditch bag and choose a place for the spare that seems more reassuring to me…

Which brings me to, “what the heck happens if we set the thing off?” My sister is first in line for the phone call should something happen. As we were getting all her numbers she wisely asked, "so, what do I do when you're sinking?”

the hope is for a successful rescue
It’s a really good question. Having been witness to a few too many failed rescues I can’t emphasize enough that whoever is going to get that phone call really needs to:

1)      Want you back
2)      Be really organized and prepared to work hard to find you
3)      Have enough information to know when to work quickly

So with a few changes this is what Evan wrote my sister (credit should go to Beth and Evans who he paraphrases heavily-- Feel free to chime in with your thoughts. We’d like to have the best plan possible. I respect those folks who go out there and take risks and let what happens, happen. But if I’m in trouble—I want to be found:

A high percentage of EPIRB alarms are false alarms. So, the first thing the agency will want to know is "is this a real alert"?  With us, it's a good assumption we haven't thrown the EPIRB in the garbage and had it go off by accident (like someone in Ev’s company did recently). Because our blog is typically updated daily on a passage it’s pretty easy to confirm if we might be in trouble—though we realize we need to do a better job of always including a tag at the bottom that includes our GPS position, direction and speed. Weather info is also a good one for us to throw in there. 

While the EPIRB agency is asking questions it will be a good idea for my sister to ask them a few too:
- the exact location of the emergency signal (latitude/longitude)
- time of the first EPIRB signal fix
- the location and time of the last fix (when the EPIRB batteries ran down) or the latest fix (if it is still transmitting).

This will give her some indication of whether the boat is disabled and drifting or still under its own power/sail, and help "define the optimal search area/pattern." We're a light boat with a lot of surface area, even when the sails are down the boat can drift quite quickly in a strong wind. One data point is we drift at 4 knots in 25 knots of wind with NO SAILS UP.

Locating a cruising boat that is nearby can help with coordinating a search and rescue. We’re not loners and typically go where the crowd goes—so that means chances are another boat may be within a few hundred miles of us. We’ll also be passing along the email contacts of a couple of our sailing guru friends who can hold her hand and offer additional advice.

- The WinLink position map is a helpful way to identify other cruising boats in the region, which can then be communicated with via e-mail. We told her she can look at the map here:

If she finds a cruising boat near our distress position she can send them an emergency email even if her email address hasn’t been white listed:

Message Precedence Categories

Precedence categories are Flash (Z), Immediate (O), Priority (P), and Routine (R). Flash and Immediate messages are reserved for urgent.
The precedence indicator is included in a Winlink message by adding one of the following to the beginning of the subject line in a message whether originated from Internet email or within the Winlink system.

//WL2K Z/ - Flash (for urgent message use only)
//WL2K O/ - Immediate (for urgent message use only)

Send an email to (the boat's call sign  e.g. with this: ‘//WL2K Z/Missing boat’ in the subject line. She should give them as much information as possible, a description of our boat and ask them for help and to spread the word amongst other local cruising boats. Ask them to contact authorities ashore too.

- There’s also a map of SailBlogs boat positions at

- shows a world map with positions of vessels transmitting AIS.  It may be possible to find an email for those vessels by googling their ship/boat name.

She should also post messages at and the 'Distress call/missing yacht" section of . This will get the ham nets involved in helping contact/search for the vessel in trouble.

Communications with non-English speaking local SAR people can be difficult. It is useful to involve both the Canadian embassy (and the US embassy—I know we had an American baby for a reason…) and a local yacht club in the country where the SAR is underway. They will both tend to have senior government contacts and be able to communicate in the local language.

Finally, if at all possible, she should get a designated point of contact/communication with our local agency (who will handle the initial EPIRB signals) and the foreign SAR agency (who hopefully actually look for us). This helps make sure that information gets to everyone as it comes up. A helpful site with additional collected information of SAR contacts, procedures and resources is: .

One thing to keep in mind is that in many under resourced countries looking for foreign yachts is not a priority and it’s asking them to do more than they do to find their own lost citizens… So the more my sister is able to coordinate herself—the better off we’ll be.
And thanks in advance, Sis…


Anonymous said...

I wear a personal epirb as well as having the boat epirb. I don't know about boat epirb but the ACR personal locator beacon, you can update with the agency and give them a lot of detail about your boat as you did in the instruction to family. You can update where you are headed. Basically a simplified float plan with who is aboard, etc. Have you done this ?

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this article very much. It was informative, especially re: what to do when you set off you EPIRB. I want to print it off and put into my Boat file under "Emergency situations". Thank you for writing it. Thank you, anonymous, for your comment as well. Good info, all of it!

Diane, Evan, Maia and Charlie the cat said...

Anon--that's really good to know. We haven't bought PLBs yet--still looking at the options. PaulnDiane glad it was useful.

Unknown said...

Love it! Very interesting topics, I hope the incoming comments and suggestion are equally positive. Thank you for sharing this information that is actually helpful.