After applying and now receiving the new MMSI and call sign for my new boat I brought my EPIRB to a company specialized in maritime emergency products for re-programming. This is necessary because in a case of severe distress, the EPIRB (short for: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) will not just as the name implies transmit your position. The data connected with the call sign will also tell the emergency responders about the size of your boat and number of persons to be rescued.
Right now my EPIRB is connected with my old boat, the GEKKO, which is a 27 feet racer with 2 people registered. My new boat is a 42 foot long cruiser, which is a huge difference. By doing so I was hoping to be allowed for being present at the actual re-programming. I wanted to document the proceedings and write an article about this. But apparently this is “secret magic” and so this article is about something else …
How long does an EPIRB operate?
At home I have an old EPIRB from my first ever boat, OLVIA, my wonderful King´s Cruiser 33. This EPIRB has been produced back in the year 2006, which makes it 18 years old now. The last maintenance of this device had been carried out in the year 2011, 13 years ago. Quite a long stretch of time, I´d say. This old EPIRB functions as a nice piece of maritime decoration in my living room, I´ve placed it right next to my DIY half model of the Oyster 754 – a great backdrop for my video-calls.
Amazingly enough, when pulling the “test lever” of this old piece of equipment, the device works perfectly: Setting off the visual flashlight-signals as well as some audio. I find it amazing to see this work still. Maybe the battery won´t be able to send out a real distress signal with full power to the satellites in Earth´s orbit anymore (and I surely will never try this!), but I am astonished that after 13 years of no recharging whatsoever this thing is still working.
That´s a good sign of the rugged quality of the product. An EPIRB, not unlike distress signal rockets or life jackets is a device of last resort: It shall never fail! For that, manufacturers simply cannot produce cheap stuff. Lives are depending on this little device and as such the prices are understandable: An EPIRB is starting at 600 Euros and the top-notch devices can come with a 1.000 Euro price tag.
Let´s look inside the EPIRB
After I checked the functionality of my old EPIRB I took a screwdriver and – slowly, carefully – began to loosen the screws. Literally just four of them hold together the whole thing. Each screw comes with a small rubber seal to prevent water and moisture from entering the inside of the EPIRB. After having them unscrewed, I could open the transparent cap – I call it the “transmitter unit” – and the yellow battery cover.
The transmitter-unit contains a conductor board and many smaller components, chips and such. Somewhere here must be the part where my MMSI and call sign is programmed to. Also, a device to receive signals from the GPS-satellite network must be installed somewhere here – these two sets of data are then fed to the sender and burst to space.
Both big parts, connected by the four screws, are sealed off against water with a small rubber ring. Even this unimpressive part amazes me: 18 years since it has been made and there is literally no wear and tear to be seen. Rubber and plastic nowadays degrade rapidly I have the feeling, losing their softening agents and becoming brittle. Not so with my old EPIRB, it feels just like brand new.
If you have an EPIRB for your own boat, you should adhere to the suggested maintenance intervals. This is valid for a positioning device like this, but also for your life jackets as well as inflatable life rafts. I know this is troublesome and time consuming. Maintaining a life jacket costs 40 to 70 Euros each, the 5-year inspection of the life raft can cost you some 250 to 350 Euros. Nevertheless, when shit hits the fan, you don’t want to doubt your emergency equipment, don´t you?
A true powerhouse: The battery pack of an EPIRB
Back to my „operation“. The battery unit is also very interesting. For this particular EPIRB the battery pack contains four individual batteries. They have been put together by shrinking film to a solid unit. The unit is connected with a simple plug to the transmitting unit, unplugging it is easy.
The battery pack is placed inside the container with a thought through system of insulating and shock-absorbing materials. Also – I guess – short-wire and surface leakage-preventing foil is applied as well as grounding wire for the screws. The battery pack itself is also densely wrapped with absorbing foam-foil.
I cut the film and unpack the battery. A tag says that the last maintenance (and most probable the last re-charging) had been made in the year 2011. A voltmeter would be great now to check the potential of the batteries, but I don´t have such a thing at home. This could have revealed if this old EPIRB was still capable of setting of an emergency blast or not.
Don´t do this with your own EPIRB!
Although dismounting the EPIRB was a no-brainer, I wouldn´t recommend to do this with your “live” device at home. This almost 2 years old design may be handling just easily, this doesn´t mean that your more contemporary device is also secured by just 4 screws. I am not an expert on this but maybe you will lose warranty on your product, so please have this done by a certified and official expert.
I found it highly interesting to look “behind the curtain” of this device. Certainly, the invention of the EPIRB an the setup of the globe-spanning satellite system and more important, the system of rapid reaction forces makes it possible to rescue sailors very quickly and pinpoint their exact locations within very few minutes on any point of the Earth. I find it amazing, holding a little yellow plastic box in my hand that can do such amazing things!
My new EPIRB is currently re-programmed and I also do know already where to put it: It will receive a secured location down below near my little nav station on starboard side: In case of a severe emergency the EPIRB can be grabbed and activated or simply thrown to the water, at the same time it is protected from being activated by accident. A very re-assuring thing, looking inside the EPIRB. I put it back together and place it on my cupboard: A decoration with superpowers!
Also interesting to read:
The safety concept of my (old) yacht
Device of the last resort: EPIRB!
Old, very old, but still working: Setting of 20 years old distress rockets