Call For a Tow

Mini Lifesavers

Survival Now Fits Into The Palm Of Your Hand

At 4:07 a.m., the constant battering of 10- to 12-foot seas finally took its toll in the form of a broken rudder. Without steering, the 30-foot sailboat White Tale had no way to continue fighting the waves, no way to keep the bow into the seas, and no way to make for land — which was some 87 miles distant. Here, in an angry, open ocean, the captain picked up a device no larger than a deck of playing cards and pressed a single button — and in doing so, quite possibly saved his own life.

This is not a concocted story or sensationalized dramatization. It's a simple, factual account of the first-ever offshore BoatUS SPOT Assist dispatch. It's also an excellent example of how, in this day and age, mariners can literally hold their own lives in the palm of their hand.

A combination of miniaturization, modern satellite communications, and production efficiencies has made handheld lifesavers not only possible, but downright inexpensive. While they are undoubtedly the most effective, you now have alternatives to a large, expensive EPIRB to call for help from anywhere on the planet.

TEXTING 1… 2… 3

In a car, texting might get you into trouble, but in a boat, it can also get you out of it. Several units have hit the market in the past year, which allow you to text anywhere, anytime, by virtue of satellite messaging. The SPOT was the first satellite messenger, and so it's also the most familiar. But the original SPOT (introduced in 2007) offered very limited abilities. Users could press a 911 button to send a distress call to the GEOS emergency response center, or a "help" button to request assistance from preprogrammed personal contacts in situations that weren't life-threatening. And this unit — which fit in a shirt pocket and weighed a mere seven ounces — cost only $150 to buy and $99 a year to activate.

BoatUS quickly realized the value of SPOT, and the two entities joined hands to create BoatUS SPOT Assist. With SPOT Assist ($10), the SPOT can be used to summon the assistance of the BoatUS towing services at the press of a button. And as you do so, they'll instantly know your vessel's make, length, color, homeport, owner and family details, and your exact latitude and longitude.

That's exactly what happened when White Tale lost its rudder, 87 miles southwest of Marco Island, Florida. The BoatUS dispatcher first attempted to send a towboat, but quickly determined that the sea conditions were too rough for this type of assistance. Maintaining constant contact with the U.S. Coast Guard sector St. Petersburg, the situation was upgraded to an official SAR mission 37 minutes later. A helicopter flew to the scene and established radio contact, as a cutter got underway. BoatUS monitored the boat's position constantly via the SPOT, and when the sailboat's VHF failed a few hours later, that tiny unit became the only means of communication between the sailboat and rescue personnel. Every five minutes it updated their location (the captain was able to jury-rig a temporary rudder and slowly limp toward land), which BoatUS immediately e-mailed to the Coast Guard until the cutter arrived.

Satellite messaging has come a long way since the initial introduction of the SPOT. New, second-generation SPOT units are smaller (3.7 inches x 2.6 inches) and lighter (5.2 ounces) than the original. The biggest downside? Your messaging had to all be pre-programmed. At least, they had to be until the SPOT Connect was introduced. This new messenger uses Bluetooth to talk with your iTouch, iPhone, or Android, and bump outgoing messages of up to 41 characters at a time from your phone to the satellites.

DeLorme has also gotten into the satellite texting game, offering outgoing texts worldwide on their Earthmate PN-60w handheld GPS, when it's communicating with the SPOT Connect via Bluetooth. These two units can be purchased for a $450 package, or the Earthmate can also be used to shout up to the stars‹at up to 160 characters per message‹by coupling with DeLorme¹s inReach ($250 plus $9.95/month), a unit that's similar to the Connect and can also bounce Android texts back and forth between satellites. One huge advantage to using the inReach: this unit goes two ways, allowing incoming text messages, as well as sending them. Without linking up to the Earthmate or a cell phone, the inReach (4.8 x 2.9 inches, 7.9 ounces) can, like the SPOT, still send SOS messages, tracking locations, and up to three preprogrammed text messages on its own.

These units share two common traits: They're far smaller and lighter than an EPIRB, and they're much less expensive than an average EPIRB. Yet they have the ability to broadcast a distress signal along with your exact GPS coordinates anywhere, anytime, along with the new texting options. Added bonus feature: While an EPIRB is registered to and stays on a single specific boat, these units can be easily carried from boat to boat and used as portable lifesavers.

Beacon of Hope

Though satellite messengers are the newest on the SAR scene, another palm-sized lifesaver is the modern PLB (personal locator beacon). PLBs have a couple of advantages when it comes to calling for a lifeline: They put out more power than satellite messengers, which helps them better penetrate heavy cloud cover (though this hasn't proven to be a common problem with messengers, up to this point); they're built to tougher waterproofing standards (RTCM standards requiring submersion to five meters for an hour without failure, versus IPX7 standards requiring submersion to one meter for 30 minutes); and their homing beacons can be picked up by passing aircraft, as well as satellites. The latest models, like ACR's ResQLink 406 GPS (which at 1.9 inches x 3.9 inches and 4.6 ounces is the world's smallest PLB), broadcast both 406-MHz and 121.5-MHz homing signals as well as your GPS coordinates to the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite network. The ResQLink also adds in another safety feature, a built-in strobe light in its casing. Sure, there's the added step of unfolding an antenna, but beyond that, calling for help is a matter of pressing the button. At about $300, the price is a bit higher than some of these other miniature marvels, but it's close enough that you'll soon recoup the initial difference since you don't have to pay yearly or monthly activation or service fees.

On the downside, a PLB, of course, does not permit twoway communications. But one of the most important aspects of going two-way is knowing that your unit is working properly and getting the distress message through. And some PLB units do have this ability. The AquaLink View 406, for example, has an LCD display screen that tells you what the unit's doing, whether it's functioning properly, and can even give you operating instructions. That screen takes up space, however, and this unit is notably larger than other handheld lifesavers at 2.3 inches x 5.8 inches and 9.2 ounces.

When you consider how good these petite protectors are, why would anyone opt for those clunky old EPIRBs? For one thing, since these other units are portable, they can't be hydrostatically activated. EPIRB reliability has been proven through years of SAR events, and their messages go directly to SAR personnel instead of being routed through the GEOS center, which can lead to a time lag of several minutes between triggering the unit and government agency notification. So for boaters who make extended cruises offshore and are likely to remain on the water when bad weather arrives, an EPIRB is probably going to remain the number-one way to dial 911 in a hurry. If, that is, you don't mind the extra expense, don't need it to be portable, and don't desire the additional texting capabilities afforded by a messenger. Either way, these new units can give you a huge safety boost each and every time you shove off the dock — and they really do allow you to hold your own life right in the palm of your hand.

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An Amazing App for Assistance — From BoatUS

If you have an Android or an iPhone and are within cell range, you can get assistance from a BoatUS towboat with a few strokes of your finger. The BoatUS app has a feature called "Call for a Tow" and when you activate it, BoatUS will receive critical information including your exact location, boat type and size, and contact info. That can shorten the time it takes to get help, and eliminate communication errors. The app's latest version (due out about the time of this printing) also includes an electronic "membership card," in case you don't have your hard copy on-hand.

Another feature that boosts your safety margin is "Share Your Location," which lets your friends keep tabs on you and displays your latitude and longitude on their phone. You can also send a text or an e-mail, with a Google Maps link. Plus, the app's BoatUS Directory can lend a hand when you need to find out what services are available to members. Use it to get a quote or file a claim with BoatUS Insurance, contact the BoatUS Foundation, or just get an update on the latest BoatUS news. Check it out at, or download it for free at the Andriod Marketplace or the App Store.

ResQLink — The ACR ResQLink is the smallest PLB to hit the world of recreational boating.

NEW SPOT Satellite — The latest-generation SPOT is smaller and lighter than the original version.

DeLorme inReach — DeLorme's inResach can be used for casual texting, as well as calling in the cavalry.

SPOT Connect — The new Connect lets you text with your cell phone, via Bluetooth communications.