Editorial September 2004 Issue

Keeping Watch

Not so long ago we received an e-mail from a reader—Michael Shea—who shared a saga that speaks volumes about corporate responsibility and the consumer advocacy role that PS must play on behalf of its readers.

Shea wrote to relate his particular circumstances regarding the McMurdo EPIRB and PLB situation that we reported on in our June 1, issue (Riprap, "EPIRB Test"). After reading that piece, he contacted McMurdo via e-mail about his Precision 406 Mhz GPS EPIRB. He wanted to express his concern about the unit's GPS self-locating problems (as mentioned in that piece), and he was also seeking advice: "What action does McMurdo recommend...to ensure our safety?"

Shea and his wife frequently cruise their Morris 40 out of Long Island Sound, along with their infant son, and at the time he was planning on participating in the Newport-Bermuda Race. Safety, he told us, was his No. 1 concern.

As PS readers recall, findings from the independent tests conducted by the Equipped to Survive Foundation prompted West Marine (a co-sponsor of those tests) to suspend sales of two McMurdo units and offer a full refund or exchange for a comparable product. Shea had purchased his EPIRB from a smaller local chandlery; unfortunately, he wasn't getting that kind of support from his retailer. The people there told him that the unit was fine, "only the GPS portion is defective," they said. Astounded, Shea then sought assistance from McMurdo.

Via a lengthy and cordial e-mail correspondence with McMurdo's Sales and Marketing Director Kevin Robertson, Shea learned that the manufacturer would offer free software upgrades for the units in question. Robertson described this "collection and return" program as customary, something a responsible company should offer its consumers, particularly one operating in a fast-moving technological field.

With imminent sailing plans, Shea didn't want to wait for his unit to be sent out, upgraded, and returned. He had purchased a GPS-enhanced EPIRB, and that's what he intended to use, so he obtained one from a competing company and retired his McMurdo unit.

It's encouraging that McMurdo reacted to the findings of those independent tests, ostensibly, by offering free upgrades. We at PS are a little less sanguine about the company's insistence that the beacons worked acceptably even if the GPS aspect didn't function as promised, and even less enthusiastic that these upgrades were characterized as optional. Though McMurdo "strongly encouraged" owners of these devices to take advantage of the upgrades, the company stopped short of instituting a recall.

Safety at sea is an extremely important issue, about which there can be no compromise. We know McMurdo takes all this very seriously. Yet it's hard not to agree with Mr. Shea—a GPS-enabled EPIRB that is advertised as more accurate and having a quicker alert capability than one without this feature, should deliver on that promise. We all put immense faith in the safety devices we carry with us, and as technology evolves, that faith tends to deepen. A manufacturer building devices upon which people's lives depend carries an added responsibility.

To learn more about the status of this important issue, be sure to read the EPIRB update in this month's issue.

On another note, this issue marks the final regular contribution from Editor-at-Large Nick Nicholson, who after 25 years with PS, is departing to join marine industry legend Ted Hood at Portsmouth Marine, where Nick will be coordinating the development of a new line of long-range, offshore cruising boats. Fear not. Nick isn't getting off the hook that easily. His name will continue to sit on our masthead, and from time to time, his work will grace these pages. So, it's not good-bye, it's good luck.


-Dan Dickison

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