Features October 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: An Evolution in EPIRBs

New GPS-connected EPIRBs and ACR's forthcoming Personal Locator Beacon promise to improve search and rescue operations at sea.

Sailing shorthanded makes you think a lot about safety. Even after you develop confidence in your boat’s ability to take what the ocean hands out, you still think about what can go wrong, and how you will deal with it. Long night watches offshore give you lots of time to think-or brood-on the dangers of offshore sailing.

My biggest fear is falling overboard. I am fanatical about safety harnesses and jacklines, staying clipped on both day and night in even the mildest weather. My second biggest fear is of striking a floating object at sea, with the boat going down like a stone.

What will you grab for the life raft in those seconds or minutes before the boat goes down? We keep an abandonship bag close at hand, packed with flares, emergency water, a handheld watermaker, a VHF. The most important safety item, however—other than your own brain—is the 406 EPIRB. This lives in a bracket under the chart table, just a few feet from the companionway. It is comforting to think that it should let someone know we are in serious trouble within a few hours.

The compact ACR Satellite 406 EPIRB has dominated the recreational EPIRB market ever since its introduction. Recently, however, ACR has introduced a new series of slightly smaller 406 EPIRBs that will replace the older Satellite 406 models. There are four new ACR 406 EPIRBs: two models of the Rapidfix 406 and two others designated as the Satellite2 406. All four share the same package, same battery, and same basic architecture. The two Rapidfix models—a Category 2 (manually deployable), and a Category 1 (automatically deployed)—both contain GPS interfaces which continually feed position data to the EPIRB. If the EPIRB is deployed in an emergency, the ship’s last GPS position is broadcast along with the vessel’s identification code, allowing a quicker response by rescuers.

These units require NMEA 0183 interfacing with the ship’s GPS, and therefore consume some power at all times. The Category 1 model retails for $1,199, while the manually deployable category 2 version sells for $999. The simpler Satellite2 models lack the GPS position broadcast capability, but require neither interfacing nor hard-wiring to your boat’s electrical system. The Category 1 (automatic) model lists for $999, the manual Category 2 for $799. This is an evolution, rather than a revolution. The package is slightly smaller, and the cost a few dollars less. The GPS-interfaced models are more likely to be used by larger vessels due to the additional installation complexity.

Another new ACR 406—not yet available, as type approval has not been granted—is the GyPSI 406 PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). While final specifications and price are not available, this model will also feature a GPS interface.

The potential for this product is enormous. Imagine hunters, mountain climbers, back country trekkers equipped with personal locators. Imagine shorthanded or singlehanded sailors with a real possibility of rescue if they go overboard. This is a product we’ve been dreaming about. Tucked into the pocket of your foul weather gear, or attached to your inflatable vest , it will give you hope of rescue in situations that until now meant almost certain death. We’ll be the first in line for this product when it’s available. (ACR Electronics, Inc., 5757 Ravenswood Rd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33312; 800/432-0227.)

Ed. Note: See our evlauation of the ACR Rapidfix 406 and Northern Airborne Technology GPIRB in the upcoming October 15, 1999 issue.

Trimming Power Consumption
Reducing lighting electrical consumption has become a bit of an obsession aboard Calypso. As of this month, the last incandescent interior lighting on the boat has been replaced, and we are making progress on exterior lighting. The only remaining “conventional” light bulbs on the boat are the deck-level running lights, the masthead tricolor, and the Windex light.

Compass lighting is LED. The seven reading lights utilize halogen bulbs. The dome lights—there are 10 below—have either halogen bulbs or LEDs. Two fluorescent fixtures light up the big mirror in the head. The sole-level courtesy lights are LED. In fact, we now have about as many LED illuminators as halogen bulbs.

The latest addition to the creeping takeover by LEDs is the replacement of the conventional 25-watt bulb in our Aqua Signal Series 40 masthead combination light—tricolor, anchor light, and strobe—by a FirstStar anchor light LED “bulb.”

Although the standard bulb in the anchor light is extremely bright, its 2-amp power consumption is simply too high. In remote anchorages, we use the bright anchor light to guide us home if we’ve been off the boat after dark, but turn it off and substitute the 5-watt Windex light for the night. Another option would be to use a 10-watt bulb in place of the 25-watter in the fixture. This would reduce power consumption to just under an amp, but would also cut light output by more than 50%.

The FirstStar is manufactured by Deep Creek Design, which brought LED “bulbs” to the marine marketplace last year. We have been using two Deep Creek red LED clusters in place of conventional bayonet-base incandescent bulbs as night lights in the main saloon and nav station for over a year. Those original LED clusters are now marketed by Davis Instruments, and are available through some marine stores and catalogs.

The FirstStar anchor light bulb is a direct replacement for the bayonet-base incandescent bulbs used in most anchor light fixtures. The “bulb” consists of a hand-assembled array of 12 LEDs, each pointed at a slightly different angle to take advantage of the highly directional properties of the LED. A built-in photocell turns the light on at dusk, off at dawn. While this is convenient, we would just as soon eliminate the photocell to make the bulb a little simpler, as it is just one more component that might fail.

In use, the FirstStar is noticeably dimmer than a 25-watt incandescent bulb, but certainly brighter than a 10-watt bulb.

The big deal, however, is the low power consumption: just 50 milliamps, or 1/20 amp. Our original 25-watt bulb consumes about 24 amp-hours during a 12-hour night. The FirstStar pulls just over half an amp-hour out of the batteries in the same period.

The $125 price of the FirstStar will make you sit up and pay attention. A five-year normal-service guarantee—invalidated if the bulb is damaged by lightning—reduces the pain somewhat. If you rarely anchor in places where an anchor light is called for, it may not be worth the price to you. For a wide-ranging cruiser who pays attention to the juice sucked out of the batteries by conventional anchor lights, it’s well worth the cost.

We now use a combination of Davis Instruments/Deep Creek LEDs and low-wattage red halogen bulbs in our below-decks dome lights. The pure red of the LEDs really preserves your night vision, and the extremely low power consumption—just 68 milliamps—means that their impact on the batteries is insignificant. Although the light output at first seems very low, it is more than adequate after your eyes adapt.

At $25.95 list price, the LED cluster bulbs aren’t cheap. Their rated life of 100,000 hours of continuous use should make them a one-time purchase, however.

For brighter night lighting below, we use 10-watt red halogen bulbs. The high heat output of halogens means that the bulbs cannot just be dipped in a red coating, which is the method used to produce red incandescent bulbs. Instead, a conventional G-4 halogen bulb is encased in a red glass sleeve. We have no idea how this heat-retaining sleeve will impact on the lifespan of a halogen bulb, but we suspect it will reduce it.

One annoying problem we have found with these bulbs is that the red glass varies a lot in color. Some red halogen bulbs give a deep red, others almost an orange color.

Red halogen bulbs are hard to come by. They are essentially handmade, and only once have we found them on the shelves of a chandlery, although they are listed by some marine catalogs. At $8 a whack, they are less than a third the cost of a red LED, but to this you must add the cost of an incandescent-to-halogen adapter—about $4. Don’t forget to factor in the much lower lifespan of the halogen bulb, plus its higher power consumption, when figuring the true cost.

We use red halogen bulbs in areas requiring brighter lighting than that provided by a red LED. In all other fixtures, the red LED gets the nod due to its low power consumption and long life. (Davis Instruments, 3465 Diablo Ave., Hayward, CA 94545; 510/732-9229. Deep Creek Design, PO Box 210248, Nashville, TN 37221; Fax 615/646-1540.)

Life Jacket Bags: Not for the Long Haul
In the past two years, we have purchased two lifejacket storage bags, one from BOAT/U.S. (model #10200) and one from West Marine (model #350661). Both are vinyl, although the West Marine bag has a fiber reinforcement that makes the fabric somewhat tougher.

We originally preferred the BOAT/U.S. bag because of its zipper closure. After more than a year of fairly heavy use, however (the bag with its lifejackets gets left in the dinghy, and may be exposed to ultraviolet radiation for weeks at a time) both the white vinyl bag and its nylon webbing lifting handle have rotted away to the point where the bag is a throwaway. The vinyl bag is brittle, cracked, and discolored, and the top handle disintegrated into nylon fluff.

The yellow West Marine bag has not suffered the same type of abuse, but it has shown its own annoying shortcomings: the hook-and-loop closure on the bag constantly catches in the light mesh ventilating panels, snagging and tearing them. The closure is awkward to use, since it requires folding back on itself and fairly careful alignment to secure neatly. We have to peel the closure carefully off the mesh each time the bag is re-closed.

We open the bags regularly to check the condition of the lifejackets inside, making sure that the batteries are still good in the personal lights and the whistles are still attached securely to each vest.

There are many versions of the Type 1 lifejacket, ranging from 22 pounds of buoyancy (minimum for USCG approval) to 35 pounds of flotation for SOLAS-approved commercial lifejackets. The more buoyancy, the better.

We have also found that each of the storage bags will only comfortably hold three of the fairly bulky foam Type 1 offshore lifejackets that are the only type we would recommend for anything other than casual daysailing in the most protected waters.

Given the low cost of these items—about $10 for the BOAT/U.S. bag, $13 for the West marine version—perhaps it is unrealistic to expect more. We would gladly pay twice as much, however, for a slightly larger UV-resistant bag with an all-nylon zipper—including the slider, so the zipper would never seize—and sturdier mesh ventilating panels.

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