In 1985, running before hurricane-force winds and 20-foot seas, I stood my wheel watch on a 58-foot eastern rig somewhere out on Georges Bank. Our course cut across the waves as we strove to get around Nantucket. The mate came up out of the fo’c’sle, waited for his chance, and ran aft to relieve himself. In just that moment a big wave swamped us. Green water rolled in over the bow and swept the deck from stem to stern. I looked out the wheelhouse door, and the mate was gone. I was about to holler for the skipper when I saw, in the open porthole at the back of the wheelhouse, eight fingers and eight very white knuckles.
It was a close call, but for many others falling overboard is a death sentence. It is the second most common way for commercial fishermen to die, after sinking. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 30 percent of fishing fatalities are from a man-overboard event. According to the CDC, in 60 percent of MOB events there are no witnesses, no one to throw a life ring or turn the boat around.
A number of companies around the world are addressing the problem with crew tags and personal location beacons. Among the leaders, ACR Artex of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., makes both a personal locator beacon and crew tag.
“We sell the PLB and the crew tag as a bundle,” says Mikele D’Arcangelo, vice president of global marketing at ACR. “They’re actually two different systems.” ACR’s flagship PLBs are the ResQLink 400 and the ResQLink view.
The company also sells the Ocean Signal 1.
“The Ocean Signal is the world’s smallest PLB, but it is not buoyant,” says D’Arcangelo, noting that the ResQLinks are buoyant, and all are no-subscription. “Ours will fit into a life jacket pocket or life raft and send a signal to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system.” COSPAS-SARSAT is an international, humanitarian satellite-based search-and-rescue system and service that can detect and locate transmissions from emergency beacons carried by ships, aircraft or people. It operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
D’Arcangelo points out that the PLBs, by law, have to have a two-step activation system to prevent false alarms.
“They activate an international response,” he says. “If you’re in the water, you have to deploy the antenna and then push a button for three seconds. From that moment on, the device sends a signal every 52 seconds to the satellite. NOAA picks that up and diverts it to the Coast Guard, which has your beacon registration. They find the closet boat to you, it could be a tanker, and that boat goes to your position. The signal transfer from start to finish takes two minutes,” says D’Arcangelo. He adds that when registering a device, the user should take advantage of the box asking for additional information. “I recommend going in there and putting the details of your trip and any medical issues anyone onboard might have. So when a helicopter shows up, they have what they need.”
While PLBs may be more appropriate for abandoning ship and even onboard emergencies, ACR also sells its OLAS (overboard location alert system) crew tag, which sets off an alarm in a mobile phone or base station if the Bluetooth connection is broken.