Chandlery September 1, 2000 Issue

Sea Marshall Rescue Systems

The greatest fear of any sailor perhaps is the cry, “Man-overboard!” It’s not a common occurrence, but it can and does happen. Sometimes the person is rescued, sometimes he’s lost. Much depends on the weather and sea conditions, ability of crew on board, safety equipment, and training.

The Sea Marshall CrewFinder’s
four-dipole antenna is mounted
on deck. Given all the other
stuff accumulating on transoms,
we'd like the size to shrink.

One of the greatest challenges in effecting a successful rescue of a man-overboard is locating the person. Even in normal daylight conditions, crew on deck may quickly lose sight of the victim. At night, the task is infinitely more difficult. This is why it’s important for crew to wear some sort of PFD, preferably with whistle and strobe.

Now, as one might expect, there are electronic aids available. Sea Marshall Rescue Systems has obtained FCC approval for its 121.5 MHz Class B personal EPIRB homing beacon. Components of the system include Personal Rescue Beacons™ worn by crew on deck (it’s a 4-oz. plastic box measuring 2-7/8" x 2" x 1-1/8" with a soft lanyard that hangs on the neck and is powered by a 9V lithium battery); a four-dipole antenna (10-1/4" x 23-5/8") mounted on deck (probably at the transom); and the CrewFinder™ receiver attached by cable to the antenna and powered by 12V or 24V.

Here’s how it works.

Someone on deck falls overboard. The Personal Rescue Beacon is either manually or automatically activated by immersion. A 121.5 MHz signal is transmitted. Range is “many miles.” It may be picked up by aircraft passing overhead, or ships that monitor this frequency. (We reported last May that COSPAS-SARSAT has announced its intentions to cease processing 121.5 and 243 MHz distress signals due to the number of false alarms, and concentrate only on 406 MHz signals.) More importantly, the signal will be received by the Sea Marshall antenna on board the victim’s boat. The CrewFinder’s display has a compass rose and LED lights to indicate the direction the helmsman must steer to return to the MOB.

There are a number of additional functions such as last position recall in the event the EPIRB signal is lost for an extended period, bearing averaging when the signal momentarily stops due to waves, warning when the transmitter/MOB is near, test frequency on 121.65 MHz (you need to buy the optional test beacon), and the ability to interface outputs to a GPS, personal computer or autopilot.

We tested the Sea Marshall system in Narragansett Bay by dropping a horseshoe buoy into the water with the Personal Rescue Beacon attached (it can’t be underwater). We then sailed away a distance of about 2 miles, turned on the CrewFinder receiver and followed the bearings indicated on its display back to the horseshoe. Accuracy is listed at +/- 5°, but it brought us back spot on, warning us when the horseshoe was smack dab in front of the bow. Quite simple, and quite effective.

Price of each Personal Rescue Beacon is $129. The CrewFinder display and antenna is $2,500. A Crew Guard alarm to warn sleeping or off-duty crew that there is a MOB costs $450.

Safety equipment, of course, is only effective if it’s used. Crew must wear the Personal Rescue Beacon around their necks. This in addition to, say, an inflatable PFD and safety harness. At some point you start looking like a commando on a five-day recon.

The Sea Marshall system is expensive, but it appears to be of good quality, and we can say that it works as advertised. Is it worth it? You might circumnavigate 10 times and never have a MOB situation. But read one account of a sailor falling overboard and three grand seems like a bargain.

In an interesting side note, ACR Electronics, a major manufacturer of EPIRBs, has had for several years a 406 MHz GyPSI™ PLB that transmits on both 406 MHz and 121.5 MHz, the former for triggering search and rescue via the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, and the latter as a homing beacon to aid rescuers at shorter range. For reasons no one can seem to tell us, the FCC has not approved the ACR PLB. A spokesman for ACR said he believes it has to do with concerns again about false alarms. But to our way of thinking,because mandatory registration of 406 MHz EPIRBs has resulted in far fewer 406 false alarms, what’s the difference between a large, bulkhead-mounted unit or a small pocket-size PLB? And why did Sea Marshall get approval and not ACR?

Recently we read of a third product, the Alert by Emerald Marine Products ; 800/426-4201; www.alert2.com. It ’s billed as a “water-activated transmitter with xenon strobe; receiver interfaces to GPS or engine shutdown,” and a direction finder option.

Contact- Sea Marhsall Rescue Systems, 1411 Broadway Ave., 12th Floor, New York, NY 10018; 212/790-6604. 800/313-9714; www.seamarshall.com.

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