Rip Rap November 15, 2000 Issue

US Coast Guard To Test 406 MHz EPIRBs

Carrying a 406 MHz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon)—a big improvement over older 121.5 MHz beacons—is an effective way to make sure you’re rescued promptly in an emergency. A week hardly goes by without proof of their effectiveness, but their reliability remains in question. Are you confident that yours will work if needed?

No need to wonder anymore. The Coast Guard recently deployed 406 beacon test kits to locations around the US, offering owners a chance to get them tested for free. See the list of contacts on this page.

You can’t just show up and expect to have your beacon tested. You must make an appointment because these kits are often in the field being used for inspections of commercial fishing vessels.

Despite all the success stories, rumors of 406 EPIRB failures have made the rounds. “Anecdotal evidence suggests that they may not be 100% reliable,” said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Paul Steward, who is in charge of the program.

That should come as no great surprise because the EPIRB is a sophisticated piece of equipment. Yet, we expect lifesaving equipment to be ultra-reliable, for obvious reasons.

These beacons do have internal self-test mechanisms, but they’re subject to failure and don’t actually test the signal coming out of the antenna. That’s why we don’t get a warm, fuzzy feeling when that self-test green light comes on.

Initially developed as a pilot project two years ago, the Coast Guard’s EPIRB study has since been expanded and the test equipment improved.

“It was originally targeted solely at the US commercial fishing fleet for the simple reason that they had most of the 406 beacons in existence,” said Steward.

Steward reports that of the 60,000+ 406 MHz beacons registered in the US as of August 2000, approximately 40,000 are on commercial fishing vessels and 6,000 on other commercial vessels. About 13,000 406 MHz EPIRBs are registered to recreational vessels. By default, the remainder would be ELTs (Emergency Locator Transmitter) used on aircraft and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons, not yet legal in the US except in Alaska).

Steward explained that the test kit is used by placing the beacon in the test box and turning it on. The box shields the signal from transmitting to the satellites. The handheld analyzer/recorder attached to the box receives, downloads and deciphers the signal. It checks to see if the beacon is operating within the acceptable frequency band (406.20-406.30), that the hexadecimal ID code is correct, gives the country of registry, and confirms that the 121.5 MHz homer beacon is operating properly.

If the beacon fails any of these tests, it is re-tested up to five times over a 20-30 minute period. This is necessary because EPIRBs are allowed to take up to 20 minutes to “warm-up,” giving the beacon time to tune to the proper frequency and stabilize its broadcast.

If the beacon doesn’t pass the test, even after multiple re-testing, the owner should contact the manufacturer, Steward said.

Initially, some Coast Guard stations were more enthusiastic about the program than others. San Diego was one of the busiest and best test areas due to the eagerness of the command and the USCG Auxiliary’s promotion of testing to non-commercial owners. In other areas, non-commercial owners have been ignored for the most part.

Now it’s officially our turn. But remember, you must make an appointment. The program is not mandatory for the Coast Guard; it’s a courtesy extended to recreational boat owners by the Coast Guard.

—Doug Ritter

Click here for a list of CG contacts in different districts.

A Thing of Beauty
I’m probably the last guy on our block—or perhaps in the state of Virginia—to see the Oscar winning movie “American Beauty.” We’ve wanted to see it for a while, but my wife and I never seemed to be able to work out the details of where and how to park our young son. He solved the problem for us when he announced he was going to have his first sleep-over at a friend’s house.

Off to the movie we zipped. We liked the movie a lot, particularly the visual imagery. I thought a lot about how visual imagery plays such a part in my love of sailing.

Perhaps it starts where it always starts—spring maintenance. You huff and puff and wonder if you’ll ever get all the things on your list done before your designated launch date. And then one day, miraculously, there you are, slowly pulling off the tape from all the things you masked to paint and refinish. The tape comes off cleanly and the crisp lines separating the colors bring a smile to your face. Your old boat springs back to life and continues to be a thing of mystical beauty in your mind’s eye.

The next day the agony and ecstasy of launch is upon you. For any number of real or imagined reasons, watching the yard crew drop the jack stands and slip your boat into the beckoning arms of the Travelift is anxiety-producing. You dare not say a word as your boat is trundled off to the launch dock.

Somehow, the boat (and you) have survived the rigors of winter and the moment of truth is upon you both as the newly painted bottom disappears into the water.

Seeing your boat afloat and sitting on her designated lines for the first time each season produces an awesome sense of satisfaction and happiness, particularly after the lift crew invites you aboard to inspect the through-hulls before the slings are released and all is well below.

A few moments later, after the yard crew has tied up your boat and departed to launch yet another thing of beauty, you sit alone in the cockpit. You marvel at how different it feels to be on your boat while on the hard than when it is in the water. The boat now feels like a living thing.

You finally screw up enough nerve to try starting the engine. The effort you spent some months ago winterizing the engine now pays off when the engine kicks over and starts on the first try.

With the motor humming, you cast off the dock lines and head over to your regular slip, looking, listening, and savoring this moment.

After checking out all the systems in the slip, you head out for the first sail. Passing the first marker, you make eye contact with the ospreys that have returned to the same nav aid they occupied last year. They whistle at you and you whistle back. You both know your place. You love the idea of sharing the bay with them and all the other creatures that inhabit it. Well, maybe not the gulls that poop on the deck now and then…

The sails go up and the engine goes off. Yikes, you are actually doing it. The first sail! The wind cooperates. Although you’ve been sailing most of your adult life, you are as excited as a kid with a new toy as the boat accelerates and then heels a few degrees. You hear water gurgling past the hull. A huge swell moves past the quarter, gently raising the boat as it marches on. How do you explain this feeling of coupling with the wind, the water, and the boat to someone who does not sail?

—Warren Milberg

Simple Boat Cover Saver
I have often looked at the various ways to grab onto a boat cover of the ubiquitous slippery blue plastic “poly” variety, searching for something that is quick and easy, and inexpensive. This becomes especially important when you trim your tarp down from the original sloppy, rectangular shape with grommets, into a more boat-like shape, but losing the grommets in the process.

Simple hardware poly snap.

There is a snap-on grommet on the market. You are undoubtedly aware of the device in the boating catalogs, such as the “Tarp Snap” in the BOAT/U.S. catalog. But I just could never bring myself to pay over $1 per snap-on grommet. The BOAT/U.S. price is $4.95 for four snaps. For the 16 or 20 snaps on my boat, it would cost $20 to $25—more than I paid for the tarp itself. I also have had bad luck with plastic devices over the years due to UV weakening.

While standing in the back aisle in my hardware store, with washers on one side and “Closed S-Hooks” on the other, a solution dawned on me.

It turns out that a “closed” S-hook is not quite completely closed, so you can nicely slide a couple of thicknesses of the tarp material through the gap, trapping a washer in a pouch of the material. You want to avoid puncturing the material, but it becomes fairly easy once you see the way to feed the material and turn the S-hook at the same time. (It belongs to that odd class of skills which are mastered just as the task ends.) You can position the grommet so that no metal touches your hull. Even so, they should be monitored for signs of rust that might drip.

The S-hooks I used are size 810, which cost me 30¢ a piece. There are other sizes available, of course. I also used either a 5/16" or 3/8" washer (7¢ each). So instead of $1.25 per snap, I paid 37¢. I not only like the savings, but I like the fact that I can get these whenever I need them, at a store only a few blocks away. Also, the strength of this device’s grip is tremendous. I would guess that if you tested it, it would prove superior to the original grommets on the tarp.

—David Shugarts

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