The boat rushes headlong through the darkness. While sustained winds of 20 knots are more than we prefer, the mainsail is rolled out less than 2/3rds of the way, balancing the helm nicely. The autopilot easily maintains our course. The worst part is the rolling. The quartering seas lift the stern, causing the boat to wallow uncomfortably as it rises on a crest and then settles into the following trough.
It is our first nighttime passage in these conditions, and it is my turn on deck. Rhonda tries to grab a few minutes of sleep below while I keep an eye out above. Movement on the foredeck catches my eye. The boat’s continual rolling has caused the lashings on a fuel container to work loose, and it is starting to break free from the rail. Unclipping my tether and shifting it to the port jackline, I ease out from behind the wheel and start working my way forward. Reaching the port shrouds, I have to unclip for a moment and then re-secure my tether forward of the shrouds.
During that instant when I’m not attached to the boat, an odd wave unexpectedly rocks us. I lose my balance, trip over the lifelines, and fall over the side. I’m stunned by the shock of hitting the cold water. But I remember to pull the cord on my inflatable life jacket.
Popping back to the surface, I watch as Eagle Too, under the autopilot’s control, sails on without me. In just moments, it’s hundreds of yards away. Her running lights are soon hidden by the ocean swell. And then I’m alone in the darkness.
“Well this sucks,” I think, wondering what Rhonda will do when she wakes up and realizes I’m no longer aboard.
Fortunately, it’s just a bad dream. But one that felt very real. And one that caused me to think very hard about our safety gear, and ponder on the best way to reduce the chance that something like my nightmare can ever happen.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) have been around for some time now, and have saved quite a few lives. But here’s my problem with most of them. When activated, they broadcast a distress signal showing your location to a satellite, which relays it to a rescue coordination center. When rescuers are dispatched to your area, then can home in on a second frequency to find you in the vast dark ocean. And that’s fine. But it can take hours. The best chance for rapid rescue comes from the boat you just fell off of, not from some folks a thousand miles away. But the signals that the PLB broadcasts can’t be received by anything on the boat.
But there’s something new on the market, and it was just exactly what I was looking for. It’s the Ocean Signal MOB1.
It clips to the oral inflation tube of your inflatable life jacket, and is automatically activated when the jacket is inflated. Here’s why I think it is hands-down the best option for shorthanded cruising couples:
First, before attaching it to your life jacket, you program the MOB1 with your boat’s MMSI number (we discussed the importance of MMSI’s in Waddaya Mean We Need A Stinkin License?). When it’s activated, it starts broadcasting a digital selective calling (DSC) message to your boat’s VHF radio, which will trigger the unit’s DSC alarm. This tells everyone aboard that there’s a problem.
Next, the MOB1 starts broadcasting an AIS signal identifying your exact location (it contains a GPS receiver). This information will display a Man Overboard symbol on the boat’s AIS receiver and give the crew your exact location so that they can effect a rescue. If the boat’s AIS is set up with a guard zone to warn of nearby AIS contacts (as it should be), this will provide an additional alarm onboard to notify the crew of a problem. In addition, any other vessels within about five miles will also see the Man Overboard AIS notice on their displays.
The only downside is that since VHF is a line-of-sight signal, and the unit’s antenna is attached to your life jacket and thus sitting right at water level, the effective range of the device is probably only one to five miles. So if your fellow crew member(s) tend to be very sound sleepers and wouldn’t awaken to a VHF DSC or AIS alarm, well, maybe the traditional PLB is the way for you to go. But this was exactly what I was looking for, and we bought two. At $300 apiece, they’re not cheap, but then, what value do you place on your life, anyway? Besides, we had a fistfull of West Marine Rewards certificates, and along with some $15 off coupons (Rhonda bought one MOB1 and I bought the other so we could each use a $15 off coupon) our actual cost came to something less than $250 each.
So my nightmare now goes more like this. After hitting the water and inflating my life jacket, I settle back with a sigh, anticipating the scolding about my carelessness I’m soon to receive. My MOB1 fires up, its strobe light brightly flashing while it calls the VHF radio onboard Eagle Too. The alarm chirp awakens Rhonda, because we’re both very light sleepers when underway. Sensing something wrong, she climbs groggily to the cockpit, noticing my absence just as the AIS guard zone alarm goes off. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes and focusing on the display, she sees the Man Overboard symbol displaying my current nowhere-onboard location. Firing up the engine, she executes a quick pivot and circles back to my location. Once close enough, she turns into the wind, stops the boat and throws me the rail-mounted Life Sling, which I use to pull myself back to the stern, where I easily climb onto the swim platform and back onboard.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
“Yeah, just a little wet,” I reply.
“What were you thinking?” she asks sternly.
“I promise I’ll be more careful,” I say contritely. “Thanks for picking me up.”
And then I roll over and go peacefully back to sleep.