All About EPIRBs

I am back to studying my Ocean Yachtmaster course today. Its pouring with rain outside and after listening to an incredible rescue story this week, I thought it was timely to do some research on EPIRB’s

For my faithful non-sailing readers (thanks Mum) EPIRB stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. By the way Mum, you are on my first to call list, so perhaps you had better read on to find out what this means…

Basically, if you are in distress and are hoping to be rescued by someone, be it on land or on the Ocean, then you are going to want one of these devices.

EPIRB’s and PLBs (Personal Locater Beacons) send a radio signal to orbiting satellites, which in turn alerts a worldwide network of rescue centres that there is an emergency.

There are now also Radar SARTs (Search and Rescue Transponders) and AIS SARTs (Automatic Identification System Search and Rescue Transponders) and also Personal AIS Beacons which provide an emergency signal to nearby vessels only.

They are all classed as Marine electronic distress signalling devices.

Basically, the EPIRB and PLB are good for alerting a rescue centre that you are in distress and the SARTs are good for alerting someone in the near vicinity that you are in distress. At the moment you can’t get both in the same unit, but I am sure that technology won’t be far away.

So – how do they work?

EPIRBs and PLBs are very similar. Once activated, they send a 406MHz distress signal to the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system, alerting rescue centres of an emergency. They also give off another lower powered 121.5MHz signal so that rescuers are able to use to hone in on as they approach.

EPIRBS and PLBs must be registered. EPIRBS are registered to a boat and a PLB is registered to an individual person.

PLBs are usually smaller than an EPIRB so they are handy to carry on your body like in your pocket, they are manually activated, may or may not float, they have a smaller battery that will transmit for at least 24 hours.


my PLB is about 10 years old and quite big compared to the more modern ones.

EPIRBs are larger and are affixed and registered to a boat. They can be either automatically or manually activated and have a larger battery so they can transmit for up to 48 hours. They are always activated when submerged in water and they also have a strobe light.

The satellite system uses triangulation to locate a distress beacon to an area of about 3 mile radius. However there are also GPS enabled beacons which means that the beacon itself can calculate its own location and then transmit this data in the distress message. This drastically reduces the accuracy of the location to about 0.1 miles. You can also get EPIRBs that are paired with your onboard GPS, meaning that the EPIRB constantly knows its location, without having to find its location when it is activated.

The device does need to have a clear view of the sky to be of any use, so an EPIRB that sinks with the boat will not work.

The battery life of an EPIRB is about 5 years, although some can last longer, and it usually needs to be sent back to the manufacturer to be replaced. There is a self-test function that you can used to check that the battery is operating.

All EPIRBs and PLBs need to be registered. This is free to do and needs to be done in your country of residence. The registration details include all sorts of extra information about the vessel and your emergency contacts. This also means that the rescue coordination centre can check to make sure that it isn’t an accidental activation.

If you do accidentally set a beacon off, you should contact the nearest rescue centre straight away to let them know.

The beacon will have an identification number on there which you will need when registering it.

You should ensure that the person on the emergency contact details on your registration might be able to provide additional information about your trip, the names of the other crew on board, your origin and destination etc. You can update the information on your registration any time, and it is worth checking it every couple of years to make sure everything is current.

You should also take care when disposing of old EPIRBs. Remove the battery and mark on the outside to show that it has been de-activated. You should update those details with the registration database as well.

Click here to go to the New Zealand beacon registration website. 

You need to purchase the EPIRB for your boat from the country where your boat is flagged. This is because the beacons are coded to countries. If you buy a beacon in a different country you can have it re-coded.

SARTs (Search and Rescue Transponders) are usually carried on a person or in a liferaft. They send signals to either radar or AIS receivers in the area. They can broadcast GPS data, and if they are coded with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) they will send a distress warning sound out over DSC equipped VHF radios.

This technology means that boats in the immediate vicinity are able to see your location on their radar or AIS and is alerted to your distress.

Make sure your EPIRB is securely mounted in an easily accessible spot. It isn’t much good if you get knocked down and the EPIRB ends up flying out the companion way, and it is pretty useless if you can’t reach bit in a fire.

If you do have to set off an EPIRB and you have more than one on board, just set them off one at a time. As the battery life is limited, and it could possibly take more than 24 hours for help to arrive, keep one as a backup.

Don’t expect that rescue is going to be a piece of cake. The rescue itself could be riskier than staying put – see this example.

I am heading up to the NZ Rescue Coordination Centre next month, so I will write up a report from their perspective once I have visited.

Do you have any good EPIRB tips?

8 thoughts on “All About EPIRBs

  1. excellent stuff!! Thanks, Viki!
    Just in case someone being located in Germany reads those lines: Registration is not totally free, a small fee is involved to register it with the official body (Bundesnetzagentur); however, if registered together with the “Ship Station Licence” then everything coming along with it is included (radio, hand-radio, EPIRB, AIS).
    Also, if you buy a used boat that has an EPIRB already you might need to have it re-programmed with new information like (new) ship name, owner name…


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