"Once activated, they transmit an AIS distress message via a miniature VHF radio," explains McMurdo's John Caballero. "The transmitted data includes a unique ID and GPS information for plotting the precise location of the beacon. Range is approximately four miles. These devices are optimized to initiate a local rescue." The key words are "local rescue." If someone goes over, the most logical vessel to effect rescue is the one the person fell from or another vessel nearby. Unless it's an open-ocean rescue, alerting an international SAR network is often overkill. With the image of the overboard person on the plotter as an AIS target, that local rescue enjoys the advantage of a pinpoint location of the victim — something that has not been so automatic in the past.
Granted, the overboard alert goes out to all vessels within range, which with the McMurdo and Kannad transponders is about four miles. But those same vessels can be reached via VHF by the rescuing vessel to either request further assistance or advise them that the situation is under control.
This all-vessel alert is an advantage, says Caballero. "If I am overboard treading water, I want everybody in the world to know it and come looking for me," he says. Another approach developed by the French company Seagull Security is the CrewFetch system, which provides a 30-minute window before broadcasting an alert over VHF. Equipped with a transponder at the helm as well as a transmitting fob worn on the body, this system does not "go public" until told to by the skipper or half an hour has elapsed since the rescue request was initiated. George Lariviere, vice president of Bridgton, Maine-based Whiffletree, handles CrewFetch in the United States.
"Our system is the only MOB device which gives you range and bearing back to the person in the water," he says. "Triggered with the inflation of a PFD, it sets off the alarm at the helm, turns on the GPS and gives you range and distance on the plotter." The most likely to rescue you should be your own boat, says Lariviere. "We communicate with a radio frequency between the person in the water and the boat. That is the first level of alarm. Your boat gets the signal, plus any boat with the same CrewFetch system, for the first half-hour. After 30 minutes, we interconnect to the VHF so the alert enters the DSC arena and goes out over Channel 70." Via NMEA 0183 and 2000 networking, CrewFetch also generates an AIS icon on the plotter. The downside? "You have to pay for it," says Lariviere. A setup with four life jackets runs about $3,000.
Still, it is a popular option for cruisers, says Lariviere, or for people who have a dog on board. "I get most requests for this system for dogs, coupled with a Mustang dog vest," he says.
* * * * *
The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency's Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to "Boat Responsibly!" For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.