A tale of three EPIRBs

Punchline: we have a brand new, 406 mHz EPIRB for sale at a ripping bargain (as in, just don’t make us lose too much money on this). Email for details- but do it soon! We depart Australia soon. This EPIRB has a built in GPS, is manually activated, and is coded for vessels registered in Australia or New Zealand.

An E-whaaa?

An EPIRB one of the essential pieces of safety gear on board Totem.  EPIRB stands for emergency position-indicating radio beacon. It’s a distress beacon that uses an international satellite system to provide tracking data search and rescue, so that in the unlikely event of a catastrophic emergency we can be found by a rescue crew. We have inadvertently come to own three of them. Redundancy is good, but that’s excessive! Within the details of how this came to be is a cautionary tale.

Exhibit A: the EPIRB that NOAA doesn’t love

Pre-departure safety check

Before departing Australia, we wanted to have our EPIRB and emergency VHF radio serviced. They were both due for battery replacement, and for important pieces of safety equipment, a check up from a professional is a good idea anyway.

The manufacturer’s agent for this region directed us to a distributor in Australia. They had an outlet in Brisbane- great! It was a 4 hour bus adventure to visit, but at least we could do it easily. It would take time to get the new battery ordered from the US, but we were waiting on other shipments so this wasn’t a big deal. A pick up date was arranged for 4 weeks later.

I called the distributor a few days shy of 4 weeks to confirm the status; it was all tracking. The next day, they called us with the news that they had been dropped as the Australian distributor for the manufacturer: our replacement battery had never been shipped from the States, and they could not longer help us as they did not have the materials or the certification.

The regional rep for our EPIRB manufacturer was very nice, but couldn’t solve the situation. Certification was abruptly removed for competitive reasons, and we were the casualty. Our next opportunity for battery replacement would be with the distributor in Singapore- we were given a generous offer to replace the battery there. However, since we don’t expect to be in Singapore until the back half of 2013, we’d have to buy another EPIRB if we wanted one for our pending ocean passage.

It was a little frustrating to hear that our only option was to purchase a second EPIRB. But frugal as we are, we believe this is critical safety gear, so we went ahead and bought one.

That’s when it really got interesting

Here’s where it’s good to know you can’t buy just any old EPIRB. Beacon registration is done with the national registry of your ship’s country of registration. Country codes are built into each beacon’s unique ID. These can be changed, but only if the beacon in question matches the requirements of the country in question.

It turned out that our brand new EPIRB, because it is manually activated as opposed to automatically activated by water immersion, does not meet NOAA’s standards. As a result, we can’t register it, which makes it useless for us. We also can no longer return it. It took a couple of weeks and ultimately email exchanges with the manufacturer’s representatives in three countries (seriously) to work out that this model was a non-starter for us. By that time, we no longer had the original box- it’s stashed in a floating bag with the ditch kit- so the local retailer wouldn’t accept it as a return.

Because we didn’t have enough already

Yes, it was then time to buy a third EPIRB! We could have ordered one from the US, guaranteeing the right coding to be in place but were concerned about adding the vagaries of international shipping to the mess. Instead, we purchased an EPIRB in Australia that we made sure would both meet NOAA’s standards and could be re-coded before delivery with a unique ID that we can register in the US.

So… does anyone want to buy an EPIRB?

Our three EPIRBs strung together in the main cabin make for a pretty bit of boat jewelry, but the unit we aren’t able to register really should be with someone who can use it. We don’t need a spare meat tenderizer on board, and besides, the tweety-bird yellow kind of clashes with our galley décor. And yeah, it would be nice to recoup at least some of what this learning experience has cost Totem’s cruising funds. I know we’ve got friends in the cruising world getting our blog posts, so please share this with anyone you think may be interested. Just… only boats that are registered in Australia or New Zealand.

If we could do it all over again…

Look closely at manufacturer’s claims for service areas. We made our original purchase decisions for gear based upon the ability to get it serviced around the world. While circumnavigation is still not a goal we’ll claim, this gear was expected to be ranging far from home for a period of time. It was assumed that when routine maintenance was necessary, we’d be able to get it done…especially in countries like Australia.

It’s not just the EPIRB. Our life raft is also supposed to be serviced around the globe. And yes, it’s due for repacking, but that has to be done with a certified rep. And yes, you guessed it: there isn’t a single certified rep in Australia. That’s one we have to postpone.

At the end of the day, we now have redundancy for our emergency beacon. It’s not a bad thing. I just wish we could have learned the lesson in a less costly fashion.

11 Responses

  1. Yikes. I’m slightly confused – there are lots of US market EPIRBs that are manually activated. You sure that NOAA won’t register yours? Do they think you’re a commercial vessel (which do require automatic activation)?

    We’ve got a US coded beacon and NOAA did accept our Canadian address. It could have been recoded for the Canadian registry at vast expense.

  2. We have three EPIRBS as well, although not quite the way you got them (one is handheld for the ditchbag). But one of them is manually activated and registered with NOAA, so I’m with Diane??? Could it be because it’s older and maybe this is a new policy? Meaning, ours was new when registered, but perhaps if we bought it today, it couldln’t be? It was actually cheaper for us to buy a new EPIRB than to have the old battery replaced.

    I’m sure this isn’t useful since you have it all figured out now, just curious at this point.

    Regardless, we hope your next leg is as good as the last!

  3. Ev/Diane and Monica, trust me guys the $500+ of an “appropriate” EPIRB was an excellent incentive for me to try to solve this with the existing unit first! But I kept hitting the wall. Here’s the almost exact language (edited for brevity) when they were determining which model we had and if it could be re-coded to register with NOAA:

    << If it has a water switch, then these can be re-programmed locally in Australia with a USA /NOAA ID>> (it did not have a water switch)

    << If this is a Class 3, Australian market EPIRB without any water switch function (just manually operated), these types are not accepted for fitment on USA flag vessels or registration in the US with NOAA because they are not in compliance with the prevailing USCG rules.>> (yup, that’s our first Aussie-purchased model)

    So…yeah, it stinks. Now please email your Aussie friends and see if they need EPIRB! lol

    FWIW, we are not being charged for the re-coding (thank goodness!). Maybe they feel sorry for selling us the deadweight? 😉

  4. Geeezzz! Thanks for the heads-up, Behan! We will be getting everything recertified before leaving on World ARC 2014, but may not finish the circumnavigation before they expire again. We will consider you experience. Hope all is going well otherwise. Fair winds and may we meet somewhere in the Pacific!

  5. Figured it out. In the US, the FCC tests EPIRBs. If a particular model isn’t on their list then NOAA won’t register it. Nothing to do (in general) with manually activated or water activated. Have you checked with NOAA too to see if it is US type approved?

    With the Aussie one, I guess try Gumtree with a low price and see if you can make a quick sale. Since Aussie boats have to carry one if they sail more than 2 miles from the coast, there’s big demand.

    1. Hey Evan, that’s not quite right, but you’re close! According to the manufacturer, because this specific model only sold into the Australasian market, the programming tools the manufacturer gives its dealers will not allow it to be coded with a USA ID. If the tools did allow it, the dealer could bend the rules and re-code it using a US ID, which we could then register. But you’re right, being strictly manually vs water activated isn’t the issue. In fact, that’s exactly how we ended up in this pickle. It was entirely unclear to us, just as it was unclear to you, that the great looking manually activated GPS EPIRB we were looking at was not going to fly for NOAA registration- so we bought it. And then, the information we got from the distributor and the manufacturer mostly served to confuse the issue further. To be clear, no, it is not a US type approved.

      It’s been on Gumtree for most of a week for more than $100 below retail without a single query, so… not so much succeeding in getting it sold We have about 4 days left. Please (please) tell me you’ve shared an “EPIRB for sale” with your very nautically oriented office mates? Please? And that at least one of them wants to know how much it costs? 🙂

  6. Wow, the comment thread in this post is just as interesting as the post itself! Sorry for all your troubles Hope you can sell some ‘boat jewelry’ soon 🙂

  7. Wow – what a crazy story. We also have a US model that we’ve registered with NOAA, because switching it to a Canadian registry was amazingly complicated, and we couldn’t find ANYONE who actually knew how to do it. And I tried, really I did. Why does this stuff need to be so difficult!?

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