1+ - 406 EPIRB(s)
Plus? That's right! Surviving is fine, but what you really want is to be rescued -- as quickly as possible. The most effective method of accomplishing this is via a 406MHz EPIRB. The advantages offered by the 406 are key.
I consider a 406 EPIRB the single most important piece of survival equipment in the life raft. The 406 EPIRB will make up for a lot of other deficiencies in equipment and supplies, though it should never be used as an excuse to skimp elsewhere.
If you can't afford to buy a 406 EPIRB right now, BOAT/U.S. Foundation has a low cost rental program for occasional use, such as if making a passage. Note that you generally have to make a reservation a month or two ahead of time.
However, they are electronic and they have been known to fail, I have been witness to that. So, ideally you want to invest in two (though admittedly few feel they can afford two at current prices), preferably by two different manufacturers so there is no chance that some inherent design flaw or manufacturing defect could cripple both. One should go in the bag, the other can either be packed in the life raft or mounted on the boat where it can be grabbed quickly.
For coastal use, especially in heavily traveled waters and if you have a good waterproof VHF handheld and are otherwise well equipped, a single 406 EPIRB will certainly suffice, but be sure to self-test it regularly. A 121.5 EPIRB is not a substitute for a 406 EPIRB. (aside from other good reasons not to rely upon a 121.5 MHz distress beacon, processing of 121.5 MHz distress signals by COSPAS-SARSAT is going away.)
Make sure the 406 EPIRB you purchase has a fresh battery. We have heard reports of some EPIRBs that have sat on shelves long enough to have less than half their original battery life remaining. This becomes especially critical for long-distance, multi-year cruisers since many 406 EPIRBS require the unit be returned to the manufacturer or an authorized service center for battery replacement. That might not be so easy or affordable from some small atoll in the Pacific. In such an instance, it may be advisable to replace a few-years-old battery, with life still remaining, before departing your home port.
Don't forget to register your 406 EPIRB(s)! Remember, the primary goal after surviving the abandonment is to get rescued!
Finally, a couple important tips. Most 406 EPIRBs and even some 121.5 EPIRBs are equipped with a flashing beacon to serve as a location aid. In their wisdom, the powers that be decided that the 406 EPRIB is supposed to float on a tether outside in the water. Unfortunately, the dolts never took into consideration human nature. Nobody I know is about to trust their life to a very thin piece of nylon or poly line, especially in foul weather. The EPIRB is going to be inside the raft where it will be safe and cannot be lost. Two things to be aware of:
- The EPIRB must be oriented with the antenna vertical to operate properly. You can't just lay it down on the floor of the raft. If raft is equipped with a canopy, tie or tape it to the vertical canopy arch.
- The beacon flashing inside the raft will drive you nuts or make you ill in short order. Take some of that duct tape and cover up the flashing beacon and preserve your sanity and your health.
1 - VHF Handheld
You can include a special survival radio, the best solution, but in most cases this will likely be the one you normally use on the boat, preferably waterproof (or in a waterproof enclosure). ideally, it should be GMDSS compliant, most late model ones are. However, you cannot rely upon the rechargeable ni-cad batteries that you most likely use for normal operations. Be sure your emergency handheld takes alkaline or lithium batteries and make sure they are in the abandon ship bag. If your handheld is not able to be equipped with an alkaline or lithium battery pack, it isn't really suitable for survival use.
2 - Signal Mirrors
8 to 12+ - SOLAS Parachute Flares
6+ - SOLAS Handlheld Flares
2 - SOLAS Smoke Flares
24+ - Pen or Pistol launched Meteor Flares
These are compact (the smallest ones using a pen-style launcher taking up in total no more space than a single SOLAS parachute flare and they are nearly as effective as the much bulkier and more expensive standard 12 gauge pistol flare.), relatively inexpensive, loud, and bright enough to be reasonably effective at attracting attention from a moderate distance -- if you have plenty of them. They are typically sold in a kit with only 3 to 6 flares, totally inadequate. Be sure to order lots of additional flares. Make sure also that they are well packed to protect them from moisture as these flares are the most susceptible to problems. These are not a substitute for SOLAS parachute flares.
"Flares are like blessings, you cannot have too many." I am not sure who first spoke or penned this old saw, but it is certainly true. I have seen brand new flares fail and decade old ones work fine. The more you have, the better. Keep them stored in a dry waterproof package and they will generally last far longer than the USCG mandated 42 month expiration required by regulation. Never toss out expired flares unless they are obviously damaged.
Do not just throw flares into the bag, even if they seem to be waterproof by design. My recommendation is that you vacuum bag them for longest life, especially the small meteor flares. Good flares are not inexpensive, treat them with care so your investment lasts as long as possible and they will serve you more reliably in time of need.
Finally, practice with some live flares so you know what to expect. Many organizations and schools work with the USCG and similar agencies worldwide to provide this valuable experience. Pyrotechnics are dangerous, both to people and your raft. I have seen rafts holed and students burned with instructors sitting in the raft right next to the student. Be very careful, read the instructions, and THINK FIRST before you fire off any pyrotechnic device!
1 - 11-inch RescueStreamer
Far better than short lived and messy sea dye marker, the 40 ft. (12.2 m) long streamer offers long lasting, unattended, and much improved visibility for easier sighting by airborne SAR, often critical in open water rescues. The 11-inch (28 cm) RescueStreamer is similar in size to a SOLAS parachute flare when packed.
1 - Strobe Light
Not a high priority in our opinion, but worth having. Be sure to include spare battery(ies).
1 - Whistle or Horn
The whistle is hopefully redundant since you should have one on your person at all times anyway and of questionable value on the high seas, but they're cheap and small, so why not. A horn could be useful, especially in heavily traveled costal or inland waters, but the gas canisters have very limited life. Some allow you to revert to manual lung-operated mode as a back-up and they might be a better choice. To prevent leakage, never pack with the horn attached to the cylinder. A good alternative is the "Admiral Hornblower," a sort of oversized whistle which is remarkably loud.
1 - Binoculars
Is it real, or a mirage? A pair of binoculars can help you decide -- before you waste precious signals and energy. Usually, you'll just grab the pair you normally use on the boat, just don't forget them.
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