National Fisherman

EPIRB maintenance and know-how saves fishermen

Based on U.S. Coast Guard reports

After an overnight search, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued two central Florida fishermen Friday, Nov. 17, 2006, about 70 miles east of the mouth of the St. Johns River. The captain and crew of a 35-foot fishing boat out of New Smyrna Beach were clinging to debris and were spotted by a Navy P-3 aircraft, which had picked up an emergency radio beacon.

The two fishermen said they couldn't do anything but wait and pray to be rescued. "We were praying, and we were praying hard. I asked God to send me an angel, and this is it. We wouldn't have made it another day. We were too cold; it was too rough."

When they were found, one of the men was in the life raft and the other was in the water. They were probably taking turns, officials said, because the water was warmer than the ambient air. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived on scene and hoisted the men to safety just before 1:30 p.m. Jacksonville Fire-Rescue paramedics transported the men to St. Luke's Hospital for evaluation. Only suffering from mild hypothermia, the men were in good spirits after floating in the water for more than 37 hours.

The fisherman had been on a grouper and snapper run, and they were 32 miles off the coast of Ponce Inlet when they reported very choppy waters early Thursday morning. They said waves were at 6 to 8 feet, and they were overcome by the rough sea conditions. The vessel began taking on water and the flooding progressed rapidly, rendering the bilge pumping system ineffective and resulting in the vessel's sinking.

Authorities said the emergency transmitter made the difference between a rescue and a tragedy.

"I don't know if I can put in words how lucky they were," a Coast Guard rescuer told reporters. "That emergency locator they were carrying saved their life. Without that, I'm not sure we would have found them."

Lessons learned
Owners, operators and crew members all are well aware how important it is to have equipment in good, working condition, especially emergency equipment. Having an EPIRB that was ready to use and deployed correctly saved the lives of these two fishermen.

Commercial fishing vessels operating on the high seas (beyond the three-mile territorial sea line) or beyond three miles from the coastline of the Great Lakes (unless exempted) must carry a 406 MHz EPIRB. A Category 1 EPIRB that will float free and activate automatically is required on vessels 36 feet or longer. A Category 2 manually activated EPIRB is allowed on vessels shorter than 36 feet and on vessels with a builder's certification that it is constructed with sufficient inherently buoyant material to keep the flooded vessel afloat. Note: A personal locator beacon does not satisfy the requirement to carry an EPIRB.

EPIRBs transmit a radio signal when activated. The signal is picked up by a search-and-rescue satellite and sent to a ground receiving station and on to a control center. The source is identified through registration. A Rescue Coordination Center will attempt to contact the owner for information and verification, or dispatch rescue resources to the location of the signal.

EPIRBs are designed to be used in the water, and they actually use the water to maximize signal strength. Also, they broadcast best when no metal objects are close by to interfere with their signal. To make the most of an EPIRB in case of an emergency:
• Be sure the EPIRB is floating in the water.
• Secure the EPIRB to the vessel or survival craft with its lanyard or other line.
• Keep the activated EPIRB away from any metal structures that could block its signal.
All 406 MHz EPIRBs must be registered with NOAA by calling (888) 212-7283, or online at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov. There is no cost for registering your EPIRB. Be sure to update the information on your registration when it changes, such as your phone number, address, or if you have a new vessel. If you sell your EPIRB, make sure the purchaser re-registers it with his name and information; otherwise, you may be contacted if it is activated.

An EPIRB must be tested when it is installed and at least once each month thereafter. Your EPIRB should have a test position on the activation switch that allows the entire unit (electronics, battery and antenna) to be tested without generating a false alarm. The battery on your EPIRB must be replaced before the expiration date marked on the battery, or immediately after the EPIRB is used for any purpose other than being tested. Maintain a record of the EPIRB testing and battery replacement. An EPIRB should be serviced only by the manufacturer or an approved facility. Ensure your EPIRB is installed in its approved bracket or holder and in a location so that it will float freely to the surface during an emergency.

Contact your local Coast Guard commercial fishing vessel safety examiner for a free no-fault dockside safety examination to ensure your vessel is in full compliance.

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