I’ve always been nervous about our EPIRB. This is the
Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon we carry for notifying authorities via satellite that we are in distress and where we are. When you need one, they’re worth their weight in gold. When you don’t, they seem like a big liability to me. If it weren’t for our precious cargo, I might not carry one at all.
Unlike the SPOT satellite messenger, an EPIRB is monitored by government search and rescue agencies including the US Coast Guard. Like everything else they do, the Coast Guard takes EPIRBs very seriously. I’ve heard of people setting off their EPIRBs for silly and frivolous reasons. I’ve heard of mutinous crews decided they’ve had enough and setting off the EPIRB surreptitiously. When the Coast Guard shows up, or a commercial ship is diverted to assist, I imagine there must be some severe consequences if the emergency is not legitimate.
We inherited our EPIRB with the boat. I dutifully changed the registration for it, entered all appropriate emergency contact information, and had the unit serviced. Then I tucked it away in a corner of the boat where nobody would mess with it. No water, no magnetic fields, no little hands. Ours is a manual-activation model which can only be activated by a) flipping up a plastic tab on the top, or b) removing the unit from its wall-mount bracket AND putting it in the water.
Tanya’s phone started ringing at 5:42 this morning. I was up, but ignored it at first. I vaguely wondered if there was some emergency to cause someone to call that early. Then I got a Google Voice message from a New Orleans area code. It was mostly gibberish as usual, but it did pick up “coast guard”, “beacon”, and “take too”. That got my attention. Tanya’s phone rang again and I answered it. It was our emergency contact that I have registered on the EPIRB. She had been called by the Coast Guard and was our EPIRB going off? No, of course not. I went and looked, and it was sitting quietly right where it was supposed to be. In the bracket, out of the water, no magnetic fields, no little hands.
I returned the call to the Coast Guard. Was everything all right? Yes, everything is fine. Did your EPIRB go off? No, I don’t think so. I’m looking right at it. Can you read me the Beacon ID on the side of the unit? Sure, hang on. I touched it, and suddenly it erupted in a series of beeps, strobes, and flashing red lights. Well, I guess it did go off.
Like all my other interactions with the Coast Guard, I found them courteous and efficient. They received signals at 5:32 and 5:40. I was up at that time, the boat was quiet, and I did not hear any beeping from the other room. They had tried to call my cell phone, but got a strange busy signal and could not leave a message. My phone was right next to me and it did not ring. Likewise, it did not ring when they called Google Voice. I imagine our emergency contact tried to call it as well.
The process appears to have worked pretty well. There's no telling how long the EPIRB was going off, but it took 10 minutes from the first received signal until Tanya’s phone rang the first time. Why these things have to happen at night, I don’t understand. I wish my phone had rung, and I’m sorry our contact had to be awakened. I’m just glad I was awake. We generally don’t hear or get up to answer phones, and it’s a rare morning when I’m up at 5am for no good reason. If I hadn’t been, I might have woken up to a man with boots and a gun knocking on the hull.
As for the EPIRB, the transmitter portion clearly works, but I'm not a big fan of the whole "out of the bracket and in the water" thing. Seems totally superfluous for a manually-activated unit and less than failsafe. I’ll be calling the manufacturer when they open this morning. I’m not sure what they can do to make me trust this unit again, but I’m not wild about spending about $700 for a new one either. In the meantime I've secured it by removing the battery.