While most people immediately think of “flares” when they think about distress signals, there are actually many other devices that can be used to attract help in an emergency. Since I talked about pyrotechnic flares in my last post, “Visual Distress Signals 101”, I want to take some time to discuss some non-pyrotechnic alternatives that might be carried instead of, or in addition to the typical assortment of flares. I like to categorize signaling devices by their “use”. In this case, I’m talking about whether a particular device works best as a means to “alert” or gain the attention of outside help, or whether the device is more suited in aiding rescuers to locate your “position” when they come looking for you. Below, I have listed some signaling devices that I am going to discuss in this post and whether they are best used for “alert” or “position” functions.
- SOS Distress Flashlight (Alert & Position) NIGHT – only item on this list that meet USCG requirement for carrying night signal devices
- Rescue Strobe (Alert & Position) NIGHT
- Laser Flare (Alert & Position) DAY & NIGHT
- Orange Distress Flag (Alert & Position) DAY
- Signal Mirror (Alert) DAY
- Orange Rescue Streamer (Position) DAY
- Dye Marker (Position) DAY
- Whistle (Alert)
- Air Horn (Alert) – mouth activated or compressed air canister
- VHF Radio (Alert & Position)
- Satellite Phone (Alert & Position)
- Cell Phone (Alert & Position)
- EPIRB (Alert & Postition)
- Personal Locator Beacon/PLB (Alert & Position)
I have included several items on this list that normally do not get put in the category of a distress signal because I feel that they potentially serve an important function in an emergency. “Sound” signaling devices such as a whistle or air horn are required so that you can identify your presence to other boaters during periods of low visibility such as fog or snow showers. They can also be very useful as a way to attract attention when you need help since they are louder than your voice and will not tire quickly like your voice. Devices such as phones and radios can also work well for summoning help in an emergency, but you do need to be aware of the limitations of each. Most satellite and cell phones are not waterproof which means that you will have to be careful about how you carry them or they may no longer be working when you need them. Since there are no cell phone towers out on the water, coverage may be spotty or non-existent, especially if you are a ways off shore. This may also be true for paddlers taking a cell phone into remote inland locations like the Boundary Waters. A satellite phone generally has decent coverage, but is still much larger and bulkier than a cell phone and may be harder to access on the water. The VHF radio is generally the best choice for alerting the Coast Guard or other boaters when you need help on coastal waters, Great Lakes, Mississippi River, etc., but it is limited in its range. For a transmission to be received from your handheld VHF, you must have clear direct line-of-sight between the antenna on your radio and the antenna of the unit that you hope to reach. Coast Guard stations typically have their antennae mounted very high in the air to help the line-of-sight issue, but in most cases, your hand-held VHF will have a limited broadcast range of just a few miles even at high power. VHF radios are virtually useless for summoning help from inland waterways since they are considered “marine” radios. The Coast Guard monitors VHF emergency channels, but obviously focuses all their attention on the waters that they patrol. Aside from emergencies, however, VHF radios can be very useful as a device for getting the continually updated NOAA weather broadcasts, even for inland regions.
One of the big advantages to the items on the above list over the pyrotechnic flares is that these items have no expiration dates to worry about. Some do run on batteries so you will need to periodically change or charge those batteries, but the device itself does not become obsolete every few years. Most of these signals require no real maintenance, are relatively easy to carry, and have less danger associated with the operation and storage of the device as compared with pyrotechnic flares. Unfortunately, with the exception of the SOS Distress Flashlight, none of these signaling devices meets the USCG requirements for carrying night distress signals for operation between sunset and sunrise, and the distress flashlights can be somewhat bulky for a kayaker to carry on his/her person. The distress flashlight is a waterproof flashlight that flashes S-O-S in Morse code. Rescue strobes (intense white lights which flash at 50-70 times per minute) are recognized by the Coast Guard as distress signals under the Inland Navigation Rules, but they do not replace the need to carry flares or other night signaling devices. (You should be aware that strobes are not considered distress signals in coastal waters.)
The EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and the PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) are the ultimate in distress signaling when the you-know-what hits the fan. However, EPIRB’s are quite expensive ($450-1000) and must be registered. (Be aware that starting 2/1/09, distress alerts are only being recognized when broadcast on digital 406 MHz. Older models may be broadcasting on an obsolete frequency.) The PLB’s have become very popular for individuals heading out into remote locations because they are smaller and cost less than the EPIRBs. However, some of these, like the S.P.O.T. model, require an annual subscription fee which drives the price back up over a number of years. ACR does make a unit which skips the non-emergency functions and the subscription fee that goes along with them. I have never used either product myself. I’ve seen some very positive reviews, but I’ve also seen a few reviews from people who were very unhappy with the performance of the non-emergency features on the S.P.O.T. unit. Again, be aware that older PLB’s may not have the most advanced GPS locating capabilities which could slow down the arrival of help. If you are going to invest in one, make sure that you have the most recent and advanced GPS functionality. I would seriously consider the investment for remote trips in potentially challenging conditions.
What do I carry (not that I am the gold standard in what to carry, but in case you are wondering about your average sea kayaker)? As I said in my previous blog, I carry a 12-gauge pistol launcher with red flare cartridges in a small waist-belt drybag that I can strap on my body or strap on the deck of my kayak. That meets my Coast Guard requirement. I also carry a small container of dye marker in the drybag with my flares. This is just a small container of intensely colored dye that can be used to color the water and help rescuers spot your location from a distance, especially from the air. In the pockets of my PFD, I carry a VHF radio, a whistle, and one of the laser flares. The laser flare has become my favorite signaling device. It is expensive ($80-100), but it is small, waterproof to 80 feet, has a range of visibility as much as 20 miles in optimal conditions, and will last up to 40 hours. It is also much easier to use than a signal mirror since it doesn’t require lining up the sun and the target that you are trying to alert. It works very well at night and on cloudy days. The laser flare generates an intense red line of light. The farther away the target is, the longer that red line becomes. This gives you a much greater margin for error if you are trying to signal an aircraft flying overhead or are trying to get the attention of people on shore. I do carry a small signal mirror in my PFD as a backup just in case I would lose my laser flare or the battery would be dead. The signal mirror is so small that it takes up practically no space in my pocket and I can also use it to comb my hair in the morning when camping. Attached to the lash tab on the back shoulder of my PFD, I have a rescue strobe light that I can activate by twisting with one hand. Finally, in my day hatch I have my cell phone in a waterproof case and an orange safety streamer that I can unroll and attach to myself or my kayak.
As you make your decisions on what signaling devices to carry, I suggest that you want to look for things that are easy to carry and easy to use even in rough conditions. At the same time, you need a good combination of devices that will work at night and during the day. Finally, don’t forget about sound as well as visible signals. Personally, my recommendation to anyone paddling on the Great Lakes, coastal ocean waters, etc. is to get a VHF radio as your first major signaling device purchase. It can be used for communication with others boaters and kayakers and receiving weather reports, both of which may prevent you from needing to make an emergency call in the first place. But if you do find yourself in serious trouble, it’s the Coast Guard that you probably want to come and get you. VHF radio transmissions also can be monitored by anyone with a VHF receiver making it easier to coordinate rescue efforts among groups of rescuers.
I’m certainly not the first person to say it, but remember that none of these signaling devices will make you a “safer” paddler. That can only come from experience, strong skills, and the development of good judgment. However, good judgment would dictate that a prudent paddler plans for possible emergency situations by carrying a reasonable assortment of signaling devices suited to the conditions in which he/she is going to paddle.