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May 12, 2009

Get Found on the Water

Fish far and wide with confidence, thanks to a new level of satellite-linked safety.
100-0509elec spot

When your fishing carries you out of cell-phone range and beyond the range of VHF radio, the emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and personal  locater beacon (PLB) have traditionally been the link to emergency rescue. A relatively new device has joined these stalwarts: It's called SPOT, an acronym of sorts for Satellite Personal Tracker, and while it falls into the category of satellite rescue transmitter, a particular benefit of the SPOT system is that it allows for nonemergency outgoing messages. Push a button on the device, and it's capable of sending a preconfigured e-mail message to recipients of your choice, transmitting your position and creating a route on a Google Earth map on the SPOT website from just about anywhere in the world, as well as sending a rescue alert.

Capt. Ken Lahr has relied on SPOT since last year, when the importance of staying in touch was driven home. Holed up and tide-stranded in Australia during a storm in the Coral Sea, he was unable to relay an A-OK through the Australian Coast Guard. "When we strolled up the dock at the resort 12 hours late, we were met by really frantic wives and a full-bore search-and-rescue operation underway," he says.

Lahr runs a 28-foot Grady-White, Canyon Draggin', in Ocean City, Maryland, and routinely fishes up to 80 miles offshore, and he's a dedicated SPOT user. The device offers him three outgoing message options: 911 for emergency rescue; a help message for non-life-threatening situations and mechanical breakdowns; and an "I'm OK" message that lets those at home track his status. "The check-in feature goes right to my wife's cell phone," he says.

Lahr also uses the tracking feature, accessible on the SPOT website. "I have a mail list for people who are interested in where we are fishing. I put out a fish report when I get back in, and those on the list can see where we were and sign up for the next charter or go there themselves," he says.

The SPOT sells for $139.00. Since it uses a private provider, the Globalstar satellite system linked to GEOS International Emergency Response Center (rather than the government-run COSAR SARSET), there's an annual $99.00 fee for service. The tracking feature adds another $49.95. For $7.50 more, you can get an international rescue insurance plan. It's worthwhile if your fishing plans carry you beyond the reach of the U.S. Coast Guard. GEOS will notify private rescue contractors in foreign countries, often more reliable than government emergency services networks, in response to an emergency call.

There's also roadside assistance service available and a cooperative plan with Boat U.S., so on-the-water assistance is just a "HELP" button away. When the plan is fully launched later this year, a number of service options will be available for varying fees.

SPOT makes a good backup system and emergency-service lifeline, with valuable communication and tracking capabilities. "I would never say it replaces the PLB or EPIRB," says SPOT's Derek Moore. "These are two different types of technology. When it comes to safety, redundancy is the best policy, such as an EPIRB or PLB, and a SPOT."

With SPOT on the market, traditional satellite rescue devices are showing some welcome upgrades. According to one industry observer, without competition from SPOT we would not be seeing the price of PLBs drop so dramatically.

Case in point is the new FastFind from McMurdo. It's a diminutive PLB weighing 5.3 ounces, the size of a cell phone, but it packs the punch of a full-sized EPIRB, with a 406 MHz transmitter, a secondary 121.5 MHz transmitter for close-range location, a 50-channel GPS and a built-in SOS strobe.

"The systems the PLB uses are the same as an EPIRB," says Dennis Torok of Revere Supply, McMurdo's U.S. distributor. "They are global and faultless."

FastFind comes in two models, the 200 and the 210, the latter without GPS; why anyone would skimp on that is a mystery, especially when the price is under $300.

The downside to a PLB is that it must be manually activated and held above the water in order to transmit effectively. "The transmitting antenna is the same as an EPIRB," says Torok, "But it has to be vertical. The advantage of EPIRBs is they float in the proper orientation. The PLB has to be held in some fashion."

EPIRBs too have seen a big leap in performance - not so much in rescue abilities, but in features. For instance, ACR's GlobalFix iPRO is a full-on boat-mounted device, with a street price of around $800. The GlobalFix features a digital screen that displays messages once it's activated.

According to Chris Wahler of ACR, "We have heard feedback from consumers who say, 'I never really know if this is working or not.' Now it will tell you if for some reason the GPS data is weak, so you can give it a clearer view of the sky."

The display also monitors battery power and provides latitudes and longitudes, so if the endangered person has another means of communication, say  handheld VHF, that information can be provided to rescuers.

"Survival is often dependent on your attitude and knowing a beacon is transmitting is reassuring. We think the information on the display is a great comfort to those awaiting rescue: It gives them additional will to live," says Wahler.

The only caveat: The EPIRB strapped to your console isn't going to be very useful if you're fishing alone and go over the transom, only to watch as your boat - with the EPIRB - motors off toward the horizon. So there's a good reason for including more than one emergency transmitter in your overall strategy for on-the-water safety and emergency preparation.

"If you are on your boat alone," says Wahler, "You should have a PLB in your pocket."

Or maybe a SPOT.

1. GPS satellites provide coordinates. 2. SPOT Messenger's onboard GPS chip determines your exact coordinates and sends your location and message to SPOT satellite system. 3. SPOT commercial satellites relay your message to specific satellite antennas around the world. 4. Satellite antennas and supporting equipment route your message and location to the appropriate network. 5. Your message is delivered according to instructions via text message, e-mail or emergency notification into the service center.