It's no coincidence that Homer's "Odyssey" was set on a boat: It’s the one place where we are totally subject to nature’s whims. For anyone who has ever gone to sea in bad weather, there is always a sense of relief when you tie off and once again set foot on solid ground.
Today, with more sophisticated rescue systems, it's a less terrifying prospect. We have GPS navigation and hourly weather reports. We have sturdy boats, backup tenders and life-rafts. And, in the event of an emergency, we have the tracking technology to facilitate rescue operations that would never have been feasible even one generation ago.
It all started with the arrival of GPS, says Jeremy Harrison, president and managing director of McMurdo Group. “[GPS] was a huge leap in technology,” he says, “because all of a sudden you were able to work out not only your position, but also the position of where you wanted to go or where you needed to go and then plot a course immediately between the two.”
GPS arrived as a tool for the search-and-rescue (SAR) industry in the early 2000s, and the technology has been getting faster and more effective ever since. It's some of the most important equipment on board, and there are some important facts to be aware of; one day it might just save your life.
Origins of the lifejacket
People have been going to sea for thousands of years, but it’s only in the last century that any kind of satisfactory life-saving precautions have been put in place. The lifejacket, for instance, had many early variations – from inflated bladders of animal skins to hollow gourds.
The Royal Navy developed better materials through the years, most notably a cork vest, but it wasn’t until a young man called Andrew Toti from California, bought a boat, that a product came along and revolutionized personal flotation.
Toti’s mother was worried about losing her son to the sea because he didn’t know how to swim so, to reassure her, Toti invented what would later become one of the most widely copied Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) ever.
The inflatable lifejacket was commonly known as the “Mae West,” and was used by the U.S. Navy throughout World War II and beyond.
It functioned by manual inflation, but its design has stayed essentially the same. The only real improvement has been automatic inflation with compressed gas, and sometimes the addition of distress radiobeacons.
More broadly, all solutions operate on the same principle: Time is of the essence.
“The most important factor is an immediate alert when someone has fallen overboard,” says Robert Linder, president of Emerald Marine, which produces the ALERT2 MOB system. “The sooner the vessel the person fell off is warned, an immediate rescue operation can be begin.”
Like many MOB systems, ALERT2 functions using a Local Transmission Beacon, meaning it’s within a closed system limited to your boat. It’s fast, reliable and cost-effective, says Linder.
ALERT2 transmitters are attached to crewmembers’ lifejackets and are activated automatically when two sensors are submerged in water – meaning that even an unconscious crewmember’s transmitter would signal.
“ALERT2 can provide an alert to the vessel within seconds of immersion,” says Linder, adding that in a recent test, the vessel’s alarms went off even before the man overboard came up for his first breath of air.
The transmitter communicates with an onboard ALERT2 receiver, which can be tied into a given boat’s systems to allow for various combinations of alarms or even engine-kill. It can also be connected to navigation software to establish an immediate GPS waypoint for the MOB.
Linder contends that the speed of the alarm is its greatest asset, allowing fast visual identification of the overboard individual, which is vital in any MOB situation. The transmitter travels a distance of one nautical mile, which he feels is an adequate range range for these situations. “If a vessel is traveling six knots, 10 minutes would have to pass before the range is surpassed,” he says. And when visual has been lost, there is always the ALERT2 Portable Direction Finder – a handheld antennae that helps locate the signal.
Tracking vs MOB
It is important to distinguish between search-and-rescue tracking and MOB. While tracking involves a complex system of communication which relies on satellites and response infrastructure and an international consortium of organizations, MOB systems are designed to be handled by you and your crew.
“I differentiate between a man-overboard system and EPIRBS,” says Harrison. “And the reason is very simple: A man-overboard system is about self-help.”
In essence, it’s for when you can still help yourself – when your boat is fine and functional.
Meanwhile, search-and-rescue tracking is about getting help when you can no longer help yourself – when your boat is in trouble.
Some products are MOB-specific, like ALERT2. However, they incorporate AIS (Automatic Identification System) technology to enhance the rescue operations. AIS is commonplace these days, as it’s been mandated by the International Maritime Organization for many vessels. It’s the same system that allows MarineTraffic to function and transmit real-time data on vessels around the world.
McMurdo Group decided to incorporate this commonly used system into its MOB products and launched the devices around two years ago, says Harrison. “The beauty with the AIS system is that it uses VHF frequency,” he says. “It’s free to air – so it doesn’t cost anything to operate. And it sends out a digital message with your GPS longitude and latitude – so the unit itself has a GPS in it.”
The unit receiver can be plugged into navigational equipment, and autopilot could take you directly there. McMurdo offers an auto-deployed transmitter, the Smartfind S20, which is fixed to a lifejacket, and also a manual transmitter, the Smartfind S10, which can be kept on a belt or pocket and is manually activated and held over the head.
The system also transmits an MOB location to all other AIS-equipped vessels in a 4.5 nautical mile radius.
“It’s using all of your standard navigational equipment,” Harrison says. “The more commonality you can build into a system so that people don’t have to remember unique systems and operations, the more effective it is.”
Similarly, Nobeltec (image above) has developed MOB software which operates using AIS and a boat’s regular navigation software. They also have a closed-system version using their TimeZero software, which pinpoints an MOB location on the navigation charts when a user clicks the button. However, at a higher price range, its AIS-SART is a portable transmitter that automatically tracks a person once overboard. “This AIS technology makes it very easy to track the person even if they are drifting,” says Nobeltec’s Maeve Lynskey.
Nobeltec has also developed an additional MOB tool which comes with its TimeZero Trident system: FLIR thermal cameras can locate a body in the water using heat-detection. “You can then make this object a target,” says Lynskey, and have the camera lock onto the person overboard.
Nobeltec offers a few different variations of the TimeZero software, and has proved itself sufficiently to be picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, says Lynskey.
When it comes to search-and-rescue tracking, it’s a whole different game. Most people are only familiar with the beacons – the handheld or affixed devices which transmit a radio frequency signal (RFS). Everyone knows that the wireless devices they use these days transmit a signal somewhere – to a modem or a tower or a satellite – and it’s through this same communication infrastructure that search-and-rescue systems operate.
What most people don’t realize is that almost all of the international search-and-rescue infrastructure used today goes through an organization called Cospas-Sarsat, which was established after World War II to help protect commercial trade.
“Cospas-Sarsat is the world’s best-kept secret,” says Harrison.
The system relies on a satellite network which is ever-expanding. Once the European Union’s Galileo constellation is brought online in the near future, the notification time it will take for a distress signal to reach a command station, and for a rescue operation to be initiated, will have been reduced to minutes. In years past, it could have taken up to an hour-and-a-half for a satellite to pass over you in the right position to receive your signal, Harrison says.
There are several different types of distress radiobeacons that are used within the maritime industry, but the most common are EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacons) and PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons).
EPIRBs are assigned to specific vessels, although they aren’t required on all. When activated, they transmit a radio signal to Cospas-Sarsat satellites, which quickly relay the signal to one of 43 mission control centers around the world, each of which has a wide array of partner organizations – both governmental and private – which respond to coordinate the search-and-rescue operation.
“This system has all the world’s search-and-rescue organizations tapped into it for a global coverage for all the users free-of-charge,” says Harrison. “That means when you press that button or pull that lever and activate your EPIRB or your PLB, you are activating millions or billions of dollars of resources and people that are dedicated – 24/7, 365 days a year – to carry out a rescue on you as an individual.”
It’s pretty impressive stuff. And while the devices can be pricey, you are not actually paying for the beacon itself. “You’re buying that 24/7 search-and-rescue infrastructure that is always there when you need it,” says Harrison.
McMurdo offers a range of GPS-based EPIRBs and PLBs which are all tied into this global system – often known as the 406 System, because it operates on a 406Mhz frequency.
There are two main differences between devices, and that’s whether they’re manually-deployed or auto-deployed, says Harrison. The most important factor is to ensure they’re located in easy-to-access areas so that, if something happens suddenly, they’re at arm’s length. You don’t want them to go down with the ship, because you’re going to continue to drift. Be sure to have them at hand.
The technology is advancing so quickly that soon these devices will also be able to receive signals. A message will be sent to the individual telling them that a rescue operation is underway, possibly with an ETA.
Remote tracking and security
In addition to emergency distress beacons, several companies are offering remote tracking and security. Nobeltec’s TimeZero software features a range of security software that’s “perfectly suited to the yachting market,” says Lynskey. They offer real-time tracking, depth alarms and the ability to create boundary areas, so that if the vessel leaves a certain region, an alarm will sound to protect against theft.
This is the line of work pursued by Advanced Tracking, says its managing director Christophe Allan. In fact, in France in 2011, of around 9,700 distress alerts sent out, nearly 6,300 came from the leisure market.
“We do not intend to replace a normal distress beacon that most yachts have onboard,” says Allan. “But our system is complementary as it offers real-time tracking and distress management.”
Advanced Tracking offers supplementary services such as piracy alerts and “geofencing,” which is similar to Nobeltec’s concept of creating boundary areas. Advanced Tracking allows clients to establish boundaries so that if a vessel either leaves or enters an area without notice or authorization, the system is placed on alert.
For yachts, Allan recommends Advanced Tracking’s AT-SAT II device, which offers real-time tracking, distress and piracy alert management, alerts in case of non-authorized movement and an array of alarm systems to protect against theft.
“We have a lot of charter companies who are equipped with our device and many times boats have been recovered after being hijacked,” says Allan. “We recovered over the past few years eight yachts – 100 percent success due to the tracking devices onboard.”
GOST (Global Ocean Security Technologies) is another market leader specializing in systems for theft-deterrent and theft-recovery. Their systems can be put in place to allow for vessel tracking and recovery, using infrared sensors, motion sensors, onboard warning sirens and strobes.
In the end, the point is to live to tell the story. There's a wide range of options and brands available, but ultimately it's crew who will operate them and also depend on them. It’s important to have the right systems in place for your particular vessel, but it's just as important that crew know how to use them. We never know when we may need them, but we should always be prepared.
*Photos courtesy of McMurdo and Flickr-Archangel12-CC.20