EPIRBs, PLBs, SARTs and AIS: Of all the many acronyms in sailing, it’s worth getting your head around the acronyms of emergency beacons early on. Finding out what each one means is the easy part, but which to choose for your type of sailing?

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When to choose an EPIRB?

Emergency Personal Indicating Radio Beacons (or EPIRBs for short) are probably the best-known emergency beacons thanks to their long history and use in high profile rescues like those in the Vendée Globe (think Raphael Dinelli, Tony Bullimore and Kevin Escoffier, to name a few).

It’s best to think of the EPIRB as belonging to the boat – rather than a personal beacon that is registered to an individual.

Why choose an EPIRB?

EPIRBs have a longer battery life than a personal locator beacon, are larger in size, can be automatically activated, and will float. By comparison, Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are designed to be worn on the body, so are smaller, can’t be automatically activated, and have a shorter battery life than an EPIRB.

An EPIRB should be considered the best bet for any yacht venturing offshore, while a PLB (ideally also with AIS capability to enable recovery by local vessels) would be a good bonus for each crew member.

Various functions and facilities are available:

  • Internal GPS: Nearly all of the best EPIRBs available on the market today will have an integrated GPS, but if you have an older model, some of these don’t, which can mean they are much slower at pinpointing your location
  • User serviceable battery: You might like to consider a model which allows the owner to change the battery, otherwise it’s a trip to the nearest service centre, which can increase the cost.
  • Auto activation: Some of the best EPIRBS can be automatically activated upon immersion, and some housings will automatically release the EPIRB to float free should it become submerged, this is indeed mandatory for SOLAS vessels.
  • Retractable Antenna: These prevent damage when stowed, but must be deployed to allow the beacon to reach its full range potential.
  • Dual-Frequency: Satellite Transmissions are on the 406MHz band, which transmits a distress signal to the relevant authorities (for the UK, this is Falmouth Coastguard). Many also transmit on the 121.5MHz band, which allows rescue craft to home in on the signal when at closer range. Some models now also have an AIS transmitter to alert local vessels to your predicament.
  • Registration: Each EPIRB comes pre-programmed with a country code, so beware of buying EPIRBs online from other regions. You must register your EPIRB with the MCA in the UK.

The best EPIRBs available right now

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Ocean Signal RescueME EPIRB1

RRP: From £380 / $447

Ocean Signal make a well-regarded range of safety beacons, and their EPIRB1 is said to be the smallest on the market. It has a 10-year battery life, and 48+ hours operational life.

It also has a 66-channel internal GPS and a retractable antenna. The Pro version of the EPIRB1 offers an an automatic release housing.

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ACR GlobalFix V4 406 GPS EPIRB

RRP: £391 / $605

This EPIRB has an internal 66-channel GPS, and a user-replaceable battery pack. It has a high-visibility LED strobe light, floats, and can be manually or automatically activated.

It claims 48+ hours run time, and comes with a 5-year warranty. The antenna is held by the bracket but deploys instantly on release.

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McMurdo SmartFind G8 AIS EPIRB

RRP: £721 / $625

As well as 406MHz and 121.5MHz transmitters, this EPIRB also includes an AIS transmitter to give local vessels location information and thus increase the chance of rescue by nearby craft.

It has a 77-channel multi-constellation GNSS receiver, manual/automatic activation, strobe light and 48 hours operating time thanks to a Lithium Ion battery that is good for 10 years before it needs replacing.

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GME MT403G GPS EPIRB

RRP: From £554

The MT403 EPIRB has a 16-channel GPS receiver, a high visibility strobe light and can be automatically or manually activated. It has both 406Mhz and 121.5Mhz transmitters, and has a 6-year battery life and 6-year warranty included.

Operational battery life is 48 hours, and a mounting bracket is included.

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