Put a personal locator beacon in your Christmas stocking

I was the mate on a 323-foot fish processing ship anchored off St. George Island in the Bering Sea. It was dark, and blowing around 25 knots, with a wind chill factor of about 5° as a heavy snow was falling. We had a tender tied up to us on the starboard side. Just before I went on watch at 1800, I went out on the main deck, flashlight in hand, and walked over to check the tender’s lines. All of a sudden I tripped on a piece of snow-covered angle iron someone had left on deck and lunged forward toward the rail. Unfortunately, I was right in front of an opening where the gangway was secured in port, so instead of the three rigid rungs of the rail, there were three chains across the space. I grabbed for anything to stop my fall, and landed hard on the top chain. The connection gave way.

In an instant, my momentum had me halfway over the side, desperately holding onto the chain in the middle with my left hand, as I tried to grip the rail with my right hand. For what seemed like minutes, but was probably no more than a couple of seconds, I thought I was going over into the 33° water in the dark with no one looking and no one to throw me a life ring. In that near-freezing water, I could be dead in a matter of minutes. Whether it was divine intervention, fate or just plain luck, I’ll never know, but the middle chain held as I gripped it with all my might and my right hand found the rail and steadied me. With my heart pounding so hard I didn’t notice the snow or wind, I slowly regained my composure and made my way up to the wheelhouse, after letting the deck boss know that the chain connection needed repairing.

Whether on a tug, supply boat or oil tanker, every mariner faces the risk of ending up in the water due to an accident, bad weather or when abandoning the vessel. A friend of mine who sailed in the merchant marine during the Vietnam War recalls how he fell overboard one day while doing maintenance at sea. He told me, “Kelly, you can’t imagine the sinking, hopeless feeling I had as the ship steamed away from me. As it disappeared over the horizon, I felt for sure my life was going to end as a drowning victim in the South China Sea. Thankfully it was a calm day, and one of my shipmates noticed I was missing. After the ship made a nearly perfect Williamson Turn, I was spotted — and saved.” Others haven’t been as lucky.

A crewmember in the water is an emergency every mariner dreads, one where hypothermia, drowning and being lost at sea can all become realities. Time is of the essence, and any delay in the rescue could mean the difference between life and death. The problem is that finding a crewmember in the water can be harder than locating the proverbial needle in a haystack. Add darkness, strong winds or heavy seas, and the chance of recovery goes down to nearly zero.

In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission approved the use of satellite-based 406-MHz personal locator beacons (PLBs) for the general public. Since then, they have been instrumental in saving hundreds of lives — including three fishermen off the coast of Hawaii earlier this year. A little bigger than an iPod, they are easily attached to your belt, coveralls or work vest, and must be activated manually.

Costing about $500, these PLBs are owned by and registered to an individual instead of a vessel. When activated, they emit a 121.5-MHz homing signal which can be picked up by search and rescue craft, and also obtain a physical position via satellite which is sent, along with the name of the registered owner, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA forwards the information to the Coast Guard in the case of a marine distress situation, and the search is then initiated.

In 2005, a Crew Overboard Rescue Symposium was held on San Francisco Bay. Over 400 tests were conducted on 40 products designed to save the life of a crewmember in the water. A short-range man-overboard-ship-alert system marketed by Sea Marshall, a British company, was singled out at the symposium for its accuracy and ease of use. It is a two-part system, composed of individual alerting units and a shipboard receiver. The small individual alerting units are essentially 121.5-MHz transmitters worn by the crew. Even if the person who has fallen overboard is unconscious, within 15 seconds in the water the alerting unit triggers an alarm on the receiver installed on the vessel. After its alarm is triggered, the receiver on the ship then displays a relative bearing to the crewmember in the water — up to three miles away. Complete ship systems, including the shipboard receiver and individual alerting units, cost about $3,000.

The Canadian, British and Danish coast guards, maritime pilots in the United Kingdom, as well as many fishing boats and ocean-racing yachts have used man-overboard-ship-alert systems for years. The U.S. Coast Guard has also used the alert systems and recently embraced the use of satellite-based PLBs as well. In November 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard awarded a five-year, $7.5 million contract to McMurdo, a British company, to supply satellite-based 406-MHz PLBs for thousands of its personnel. The Coast Guard obviously considers man-overboard-ship-alert systems and PLBs to be important rescue devices.

As Christmas approaches, I sadly think of the merchant mariners who have been lost at sea and won’t be joining loved ones in the festivities. It is my sincere hope that the use of man-overboard-ship-alert systems and PLBs will soon be mandated on all U.S. commercial vessels. Until that day comes, I urge my fellow mariners to give themselves a Christmas present and buy their own 406-MHz PLB. Just like those fishermen off the coast of Hawaii found out a recently, a PLB could save your life.

May all of you have a Merry Christmas and a safer New Year!

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’ •

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@profressionstg.wpengine.com

By Professional Mariner Staff