Make the switch to a 406
New laws came into effect on July 1 that require all vessels eight metres or longer to be fitted with a new 406MHz digital distress beacon, also known as an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).
From February 1, 2009, the old analogue 121.5MHz signal will no longer be picked up by the international satellite system.
New digital (406MHz) beacons allow rescue services to be alerted within seconds of a vessel’s location, details and emergency contacts.
The old analogue system takes up to 90 minutes just to transmit a signal and in some cases it was 5 hours before rescue services were alerted.
The new system can determine the location of a vessel in distress within a 5km radius compared to a 20km radius under the analogue system.
Accuracy is increased to within 120metres if the beacon is fitted with a GPS.
To comply with the new requirement, 406 MHz beacons must also be registered with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and carry a registration sticker.
Each 406 MHz beacon – registered to an individual person and their craft – carries a unique identification code, transmitted when the beacon is activated.
The unique code provides vital information about the registered boat and its owner – ensuring a faster and more effective search and rescue response appropriate to the vessel size. The analogue beacon provided only a position to rescuers.
141 distress beacons were activated between January and March this year.
108 of those signals were inadvertent, malicious or the source could not be located, which wastes precious rescue resources.
In the 1998 Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, six sailors died, 55 people were rescued, five vessels sank and 66 boats retired from the race when multiple storms merged and hurricane force winds and waves descended on the fleet.
Most of the yachts were fitted with 121 beacons, but search and rescue response could have been different if the vessels had been using 406 MHz beacons.
Operators of commercial vessels (Class A, B or C) working in offshore waters must also make the switch to 406 MHz distress beacons under these new rules.
Boaters must switch to using 406 MHz distress beacons ahead of February next year for safety’s sake.
Skippers of vessels 8m or larger are required by law to carry a distress beacon – as well as other safety equipment such as a combination of distress flares – when operating two nautical miles or more from the coast. This excludes Tasmania where an EPRIB must be carried on all vessels in open water irrespective of length.
It is also recommended skippers of smaller vessels heading offshore also carry a distress beacon.
As an additional safety measure, any skipper going offshore should use their marine radio to alert the volunteer marine radio network with details of the expected journey, and then log off on return.
New beacon requirements are the result of an amendment to the Boating (Safety Equipment) Regulation – NSW, under the Maritime Services Act.
NSW Maritime Boating Officers randomly check safety equipment, including distress beacons on vessels. Last year, more than 41,000 checks were conducted on NSW waters.