In the mid-afternoon of June 5, five days out of Southwest Harbor, Maine, en route to Oban, Scotland, the 42-foot sloop I was aboard had a low fly-over by a U.S. Coast Guard C-130. I contacted her on VHF channel 16 only to find that they were looking for us.
It was a beautiful day after some previous rough weather. All six crew aboard were enjoying the sunshine and we were totally unaware that for the last five hours a drama had been playing out. A signal from our EPIRB had been picked up on two satellite passes. The ground contact parties registered with NOAA had been contacted to verify that we were indeed in the North Atlantic. Three ships and two yachts had been diverted towards the position of the EPIRB transmission and an air search had been initiated.
Our ACR 406 Category II Manually Deployable EPIRB was stored in a Ziploc bag inside of a “dry bag” containing other emergency gear and secured to our life raft mounting bracket up on the cabin roof. When the unit was retrieved, the C-130 still circling overhead, it was not transmitting. Upon inspection, I was totally puzzled as the unit was in the off position and the break-away plastic locking tab was in place. The dry bag and Ziploc were wet as the result of an inadequate seal through the rough weather, yet the EPIRB was not on.
After a conversation with the radio operator on the C-130 and communication back to their base in Norfolk, we were advised that they had had a few other false alarms from units like ours, to dry the unit off and keep it in a dry location. They wished us well and flew home.
It wasn’t until I was commissioning another yacht in August and installed a new ACR 406 Category II EPIRB that the mystery for me was solved. I read the installation and operation instructions. Even though manually deployable, the ACR unit is water activated if not mounted in an ACR bracket, even when the switch is in the off position! This is clear when the box instructions or label on the unit are read in full.
The ACR 406 Category II Manually Deployable EPIRB is an excellent piece of equipment and, as with all safety equipment, every member of a vessel’s crew should have a complete understanding of its deployment and operation prior to departure.
I read with interest your EPIRB evaluation in the September 1997 issue. I have lived with an EPIRB problem that has never been fully explained since 1992 either by NOAA or the manufacturer, Litton.
Whilst in passage between Bermuda and the Azores, I was informed by SSB that my EPIRB had activated briefly. Fortunately, I was in contact daily with the sailor’s saint, Southbound II, Herb Hilgenberg, and was able to give assurance that everything was OK and that we had not activated our EPIRB.
The EPIRB was in fact in a sealed grab bag within its own case and the switch protected from accidental activation by tape.
I am a great believer in EPIRBs. The 406 was a great breakthrough in EPIRB user credibility and I would only activate it, normally, when leaving a sinking boat. The arguments about 99% of calls previously being false was possible to some extent due to EPIRBs not being previously so “locatable” as the 406 series.
We dug into the bag to make sure the EPIRB had not been activated.
The next day we were informed by Southbound II that the same thing had happened again. There were only two of us aboard and both of us cross-examined each other extensively to make sure neither of us was “sleep switching.”
We then removed the EPIRB from the bag and disconnected the battery. It seemed to solve the problem of self-activation (this was a manually activated model).
The manufacturer replaced the unit for us in Gibraltar and seemed to accept that this fault occurred on some models (a PC board fault).
I wonder if other reports or complaints have been received?
Amelia Island, Florida
In your article on 406 EPIRBs, you wrote of ACR placing “a stamp on its registration card.” The stamp is a 22˘ stamp. Because the card folds over, the U.S. Postal Service considers this insufficient postage! You need the 32˘ stamp. A lost card would not be good. I thought fellow readers would like to know.
A high ranking Coast Guard (SAR) officer admitted that his service does not pay much attention to signals from 121.5 MHz EPIRBs anymore, unless notification of a vessel in distress has been received from another source.
I can personally attest that the Coast Guard pays a LOT of attention to signals from 406 MHz EPIRBs. In the 1993 Marion-Bermuda Race I was making a check around the deck midday on the third day out and noticed that the switch on our EPIRB was in the off position. I locked the switch in the automatic position, which would turn the unit on if it released from its hydrostatic mounting. As dusk approached, the crew on deck asked why the strobe on the EPIRB was flashing. We immediately turned the unit off and called the Coast Guard on the SSB. The first response was from a C-130 aircraft, which was coming to rescue us.
What had happened was that the EPIRB had become dislodged just a little from its mounting and had activated. During daylight, the strobe was not visible and we were unaware of its operation. This cost everybody a lot of money and has caused me to be very, very careful around EPIRBs.
Warren, Rhode Island
We heartily second the call for caution. The last thing any of us needs is too many false alarms, which can only make those who listen more complacent.
Rob Roy 23
I really enjoyed the article about the Rob Roy 23 in the December issue. The boat has always been one of my favorite designs as I have had a long romance with the British canoe yawls. I owned one of the first RR23’s for several years and enjoyed it immensely. At one time we beat a 45' Chris- Craft across Rosario Strait in a bit of a gale. We were going like a train with only jib and mizzen up while our friends in the Chris-Craft were taking green seas over the bow.
I didn’t quite understand the part in the article that said, “These factors make her a very respectable light air performer.” And later, “She doesn’t have enough sail area to make her quick in light or even moderate air.” Sounds like a bit of a contradiction to me. As to weatherliness, I did fit a main backstay and runners to the boat to reduce headstay sag and that helped the windward ability substantially. It's a simple fix.
A correction: I did not design Storm and American Eagle. They were both designed by A.E. “Bill” Luders. I did sail with Bill aboard Storm for six wonderful years and was his assistant on the design of the Eagle. Also, I was not in the navy. My father was in the RCNVR and it was through him that I was able to sail the RCN boats as a kid and develop a love of sailing.
Keep up the good work. PS is, without a doubt, an essential publication for the serious sailor.
As if we didn’t make enough mistakes in the article, we also blew the address for the builder, Marine Concepts. The correct contact information is: Marine Concepts, 41 Oscar Hill Rd., Tarpon Springs, FL 34689; 813/937-0166.
Where Credit Is Due...
To Mack Boring & Parts Co.: “The transmission in my 1986 Pearson 36 died in 1992 and a rebuilt transmission was installed. In 1994, after about 300 hours use, it failed. It was repaired but in 1996 it died and another rebuilt transmission was installed. While winterizing the engine in October 1996, Conlyn Marine Services of Herrington Harbour in North, Deale, Maryland, called to ask how many years it had been since I had changed my transmission oil. When I advised them that this transmission was a new rebuild with only 100 hours, they said I probably had a big problem. I notified Mack Boring and they agreed to hold the warranty open until spring 1997, at which time they analyzed it and agreed I had a problem. In June, they installed a brand new transmission at no charge. This is what I call service! Hopefully, Mack Boring and Practical Sailor will never hear from me again.”
Peter Van Alstine
To Sensatron, Inc.: “In March 1997, after my Water Witch bilge pump switch appeared to have failed, I advised Brian Abbott at Sensatron of my problem and that my switch was substantially out of warranty. He asked that I return the switch to him and, if in fact it was defective, he would replace it notwithstanding the expired warranty. I did. He did. I now have a brand new switch of a more recent model at no expense to me, and it is functioning beautifully. Faith renewed in the belief that most people, business people included, will go the extra mile.”