Information and Advice

Emergency Location Devices

Some recent discussions between members of the yacht section have been about the profusion of emergency location systems and which is the most appropriate for the type of sailing we do. To help take that decision it may help to put the whole Search and Rescue system into perspective.

In the 1970’s the international marine industry started work on a global Search and Rescue (SAR) plan and by the mid 1980’s the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) had developed a Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) to provide the communication support needed to implement this plan.

GMDSS component frequencies
GMDSS component frequencies

GMDSS – pulled together the existing systems and specified new ones for a comprehensive integrated system of worldwide distress alerting and location using the technology available at the time.   It is used for distress alerting, location, SAR coordination, maritime safety information broadcasts, general communications and bridge to bridge calling. Since GMDSS was originally developed it has been amended to take account of later technology, e.g. GPS and AIS.

One of the major changes introduced to world shipping by GMDSS was that the carriage requirements for equipment was defined by the area of operation rather than the size of the ship. Area A1 is within range of a VHF DSC coast station, A2 within range of a MF DSC coast station, A3 within range of the INMARSAT geostationary communication satellites, A4 is anywhere else which is essentially the polar regions.

There are three components of GMDSS that are relevant to distress alerting and locating. They are

  • Digital Selective Calling (DSC) and Radio Telephone (R/T) distress alerting. In zone A1 this can be achieved using a DSC VHF radio. Other zones require equipment that does not need line of sight to operate.
  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) which emit a distress alert and enable the position of the device to be found.  These function almost everywhere in the world. Personal Location Beacons (PLB) are smaller versions of EPIRBs for individual use. They differ in that they must be physically turned on – unlike EPIRBS which start automatically when they hit the water.
  • Search and Rescue Transponder (SART). These are to enable rescuers to locate the casualty. They can be based on a radar transponder or an Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmitter.

EPIRBs and PLBs  


The satellite system that EPIRBs use for alerting and location in all sea areas is COSPAS/SARSAT. This was originally a constellation of low altitude (850 – 1,000 km) near polar orbiting satellites, LEOSAR, that detected emergency signals from EPIRB’s and communicated the information to ground stations where the position of the distress was determined using Doppler shift techniques. The location of the casualty could be determined with an accuracy of better than 2 nautical miles. The system only worked when a satellite had both the ground station and EPIRB in line of sight so it could take some time for the alert to get through – about 45 minutes on average.

MEOSAR - the future
MEOSAR – the future

The system was subsequently expanded to include equipment on a series a series of geostationary satellites, GEOSAR, at an altitude around 36,000 km, always in line of sight of a ground stations giving almost total continuous global coverage except at the poles. They act as relays for the LEOSAR satellites and can increase that speed of response but cannot be used for locating the position of the alert from Doppler shift as they are stationary. However updates to EPIRBs and PLBs allow them to include a GPS position in the alert. The combination of GEOSAR and GPS means the position can be located to within 100m and the alert will get through within 5 minutes.

The old emergency frequency, 121.5 MHz, can no longer be detected by the satellites but it is still transmitted by EPIRBs and PLBs to allow the rescue services to use their own equipment to home in on the EPIRB. Most merchant ships and leisure vessels do not carry suitable equipment.

The next extension of COSPAS/SARSAT is underway involving the fitting of EPIRB alert signal receivers to the new generation of satellite navigation satellites, GPS, the Russian system GLONASS and the EU system Galileo flying in geosynchronous orbits at 19-24,000 km altitude. When enough satellites are flying and ground stations are operating this system, MEOSAR will be able to provide both the position as transmitted by the EPIRB or PLB and independent location of the beacon using multilateration.

Radar SART
Radar SART

In addition the MEOSAR system will, for the first time, include as a return link transmission that will allow the beacon to provide to the user a confirmation that the distress message has been received.

EPIRBs and PLBs are good at issuing a distress alert and for providing accurate information about where the EPIRB/ PLB is. This is the same information a DSC distress alert provides. EPIRBs/PLBs emit a homing signal which can be detected by rescuers with the right equipment.


The class of GMDSS equipment specifically for assisting in finding the casualty is the Search and Rescue Transponder (SART). SARTs are aimed at allowing both the specially equipped SAR services and the ordinarily equipped merchant vessels to locate casualties. There are two types of SART– the original is a device responds to transmissions from X band radar in search vessels. X band radar is carried by almost all commercial vessels of any size as well as SAR resources. The radar SART paints a characteristic target on the ship’s radar which enables it to home in on the location.


AIS SART operation

In 2010 a second type of SART was introduced into GMDSS based on AIS. The SART has an integrated GPS receiver and when activated sends an AIS distress message including the position. On vessels within VHF range this alert triggers an alarm and shows up as a special icon on suitably configured plotters and radars. Once per minute, the position is sent as a series of eight identical position report messages (four on each AIS channel) which creates a high probability that at least one of the messages is sent on the highest point of a wave.


AIS SART alert shows as red circle

The original radar SARTs were configured to be carried by lifeboats and rafts. Many AIS SARTs are now configured to be personal devices. Combined with the ability of yachts to receive and display AIS signals they can be an invaluable personal MOB device.

What to Carry

As always, the decision on whether to carry any of this equipment on the yacht is the skippers and probably should depend on what sailing is being envisaged. There are big differences between crossing the Solent, crossing Lyme Bay, crossing the Channel and crossing the Pacific. An EPIRB is probably essential for deep water sailing but less so on a day trip to Bembridge as long as there are other ways of distress alerting on board.


Testing an AIS SART
Testing an AIS SART

PLBs and AIS-SARTs are ideal personal alerting and locating devices. Carried by individual crew members they can assist the rescue services and other vessels in recovering casualties from boats in peril, life rafts and the water. PLBs have the added advantage that they can be used on land as well. Carrying a PLB and/or an AIS-SART can be the decision of an individual rather than the skipper and it appears some professional and racing crews are already doing so. A PLB needs the SAR services to organise the search for you whilst an AIS-SART lets everyone in range know where you are but is not a distress alerting device.




Robert Spencer, Yacht Section Technical and Safety : February 2016

Going French

Last month’s article on distress flares referred to the French carriage requirements for safety equipment. With the Rear-Commodores spring cruise going to France this year, your correspondent has beeFrenchFlagn asked what else is called for.

As discussed last month it is not entirely clear whether the French douaniers expect visiting foreign boats to comply with these regulations. However, it is clear that the French authorities have the right to apply their own requirements if they choose.  It is up to each skipper to make their own decision about whether and how they comply.

The full details of the French regulations are available on the RYA website. The requirements are now divided into 4 groups depending on the distance from a safe haven. Crossing the Channel puts a boat in the Middle-water category (Between 6 and 60 miles from a safe haven) and the list below is for that.

The Middle-water category is a new one created at the end of 2014 so these requirements may have changed from those you have seen before. They are:

  • Individual CE or MED marked buoyancy aids of 150N or 100N for children up to 30kg.
  • A waterproof flash light or individual signalling device with a battery life of at least 6 hours fastened to each individual buoyancy aid.
  • Mobile fire-fighting equipment (for CE marked vessels follow the builders recommendations in the owner’s manual – otherwise see below)
  • Manual bail-out equipment
  • Towing equipment
  • Anchor rope (if unladen mass> 250kg)
  • Tide tables
  • National flag (outside of territorial waters)
  • Location and aid device for someone in the water
  • 3 hand held red flares
  • Magnetic compass
  • Official marine charts (see Nautical Documents Leaflet)
  • International rules for the prevention of collisions at sea
  • Description of the buoyage system
  • 3 parachute flares and 2 smoke flares or 1 fixed VHF radio
  • Life raft
  • Equipment for establishing positions
  • Up to date record of lights/ flares (see Nautical Documents Leaflet)
  • Ship’s log
  • Equipment for receiving weather reports
  • Harness and safety line per person aboard for sailing vessels (1 per vessel for non sailing)
  • First aid kit in accordance with article 240-2, 16
  • Light for searching and locating at night
  • Fixed VHF radio mandatory as of 01/01/2017

 Fire extinguishers for non CE marked vessels:

  1. Inboard engine power<120kW – total capacity =34B operated by closable nozzle directed at the engine compartment
  2. Electric galley – total capacity = 5A/34B or fire blanket
  3. Stove with naked flame – total capacity = 8A/68B or 5A/34B + fire blanket located with 2m of each appliance and accessible if the appliance catches fire.
  4. Living area used for sleeping – total capacity = 5A/34B located within 5m of the middle of any bed
  5. Electrical installation over 50V AC- total capacity = 5A/34B dielectric

The life and frequency of checks are set by the manufacturers. The extinguishers should be CE or MED marked.

Robert Spencer, Yacht Section Technical and Safety : January 2016

Paint Your Bottom

Two points have been raised by members about antifouling: whether copper will follow TBT’s in being banned as an antifouling constituent and whether the authorities are trying to ban DIY application of antifouling.

 Many years ago small vessels in the UK and many other places worldwide had to stop using TBT anti fouling because of its effect on the marine ecosystem. In their place most small boat antifoulings were based on copper compounds with other things added. Copper by itself is apparently very effective against marine fauna but other biocides are necessary to deal with the plant life. Some of these biocides are also copper based compounds.

The IMO Convention that finally banned TBT antifouling Fouling2on ships included within it a procedure to ban other substances in future should the science show they were having a negative environmental effect. At the time (early 2000’s) there was some gossip that copper would be the next to be banned. In fact there has been little or no serious discussion on this at international level since, but even before the TBT ban there were some countries concerned about the effect copper was having in their waters.

The Netherlands was particularly concerned about its inland waters and Sweden was concerned about the Baltic and some restrictions are in force in those areas. Denmark also restricts the leechage  rate of copper in antifoulings. The general consensus, though, seems to be that copper from antifouling has little effect in the marine environment at large – the amount of copper released from antifouling into the sea is thought to be a small percentage of that washed in by land erosion. Though some concerns have been raised about local concentrations of copper in ports and harbours, especially where concentrated copper scrapings are allowed to enter the water. Your correspondent is not qualified to comment on the science but some States in the US are now introducing restrictions for leisure vessels, including Washington State and California, and others are looking at the issues.

Their does not seem to be much pressure in Europe to follow suit at the moment which brings us neatly to the current work being undertaken by the European Chemicals Agency to ensure compliance with EU regulations concerning biocides. It appears that copper compounds are being accepted by the relevant committee following an assessment procedure that includes the environmental impact of their lifecycle use as antifoulings.

However the British Coatings Federation has concerns about this process for another reason entirely. They are concerned that DIY application of approved antifoulings may nevertheless be forbidden on health and safety grounds. There are already on the HSE’s approved list of antifouling products a number that are restricted for professional use only – because of the active substance or the method of application. BCF undertook a survey of 2,500 boat owners at the end of last year and found that the great majority of them are well aware of the hazards involved in the application of antifouling paints and the BCF is preparing a strategy to defend their amateur use.

From what your correspondent has seen the EU methodology of approval considers the health and safety aspects of both professional and amateur use. Copper pyrithione is one biocide that has been approved for only professional use, but that was also the case before the latest assessment. Others have been recommended for approval for amateur use as well. However, as the trade body it seems likely the BCF knows what it is talking about and there is a threat out there somewhere – maybe from UK “green plating” of EU regulations. Watch this space!Fouling1

Going back to the discussion of banning copper – what would the implications be if that happened?

Apart from helping us go faster, antifouling has two effects that are good for the environment – they help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by creating a smoother hull and they help prevent the transport of invasive species from one ecosystem to another. To continue to get these benefits some means of keeping fouling off boats remains essential.

There are other active substances that could be used, and in some cases already are. Many are zinc based and include substances used in dandruff shampoo, nappy rash cream and other domestic products. It is likely, though, that anything that is effective at killing marine organisms will eventually be questioned on environmental grounds.

The commercial shipping industry is experimenting with non active antifoulings that work by have properties that prevent the fouling sticking on or encouraging them to slip off when the vessel is under way. Some of these are showing promising results. Commercial ships however spend much more time under way than leisure vessels.

Following the discovery many years ago that warship sonar domes never fouled, a number of devices have been developed to use sonic vibrations on small vessels to mimic the effect. Some tests in a yachting magazine a number of years ago appeared to show that they are effective against many, but not all organisms. Your correspondent fitted one as a winter project two or three years ago. It is difficult to be sure from such a limited, unscientific trial, but it does seem to have had some effect. Raven will continue also to be antifouled though.

Robert Spencer, Yacht Section Technical and Safety : January 2016

Are Flares Still Fashionable ?

This article has grown out of a discussion amongst some members of the Yacht Section about whether to carry distress flares and replace them when they expire, or whether to consider modern alternatives.

There are two common concerns about carrying pyrotechnic flares on pleasure boats.  One is that they have a relatively short life – typically 3-4 years – after which they should be disposed of.  In recent years the number of places they can be safely disposed of has reduced and many people have reported problems with disposal.  However your correspondent found last time he replaced his flare that the vendor of the new flares was happy to accept the old ones for disposal.  The regular cost remains an issue.


The second concern is the possible dangers of carrying and using pyrotechnics on a small boat.

Occasional accidents have been reported as a result of using flares and many comments on the dangers of using them focus on the lack of practice most boaters have with them and the probable difficulties reading and understanding the instructions in a distress situation.  In days of yore we used to set off out date flares at bonfire events and thus get some practice. There is now an urban myth around that this is illegal.

As far as your correspondent can tell, it is only an urban myth.  The COLREGS and presumably the Merchant Shipping Acts forbid the use of distress signals on vessels where there is no distress.  This doesn’t apply in back gardens or inland.  It is reportedly illegal to take them to sports event under the Public Order Act, but no-one would advocate that as a suitable place to practice. The COLREGS prohibition applies to all distress signals, not just flares. If anyone tells your correspondent he cannot wave his arms up and down in the privacy of his own back garden he is likely to receive an Anglo-Saxon riposte.  Please note your correspondent is not a legal expert and you should not rely on this column for your defence. He would also not advocate practicing with parachute flares as he has seen one still burning when it landed; or smoke signals unless one is well away from roads and other people/ animals; or any flares where the emergency services could interpret them as a distress signal, e.g. near the coast.

Don’t burn the tube

The danger of carrying flares centres on their essential pyrotechnic properties. Some skippers are reluctant to add another explosive element to the cocktail of diesel, petrol, LPG and stored electricity that cruisers typically carry around in a space smaller than the average sitting room.

The RYA has published more than one article questioning the value of flares, especially parachute flares, now that DSC alerting, EPIRBS and PLB’s are available. The RYA does recognise the value of hand held flares and smoke signals for “final mile” locating.

In addition to the distress flares, white hand flares are sometimes carried as a means of illuminating sails in the darkness as a last resort method of drawing the attention of another vessel to the boats presence.  This is not a recognised distress signal.


COLREGS Annex IV lists 15 different recognised ways of signalling distress at sea. Flares form 2 of these methods, i.e,

  • A rocket parachute flare or a hand flare showing a red light
  • A smoke signal giving off orange-coloured smoke

Of the other 113 a number are historic or inappropriate – no-one proposes lighting a barrel of oil on the deck of a yacht. And sending a Morse Code SOS by signal lamp in the Solent is unlikely to elicit much interest.

A typical collision that COLREGS mitigates

However modern methods have made their way into the list too. The most practical for yachts are those based on the GMDSS system including VHF or MF DSC, EPIRB’s and PLB’s,  in addition to such as voice MAYDAY VHF calls or “slowly and repeatedly raising and lowering arms outstretched to each side”.

Mobile phones and Electronic Visual Display (EVDS) can also play some part in distress situation although neither are recognised distress signalling methods and can’t be relied on to attract attention. Similarly Search and Rescue Transponders (SART) and AIS SART  systems are available which can assist in recovering  men overboard but are not distress signalling systems.



What Are the Carriage Requirements

The Statutory requirements for carrying safety and distress signalling equipment for UK registered pleasure vessels are contained in the MCA’s Marine Guidance Note MGN 538

This document makes clear that there are no carriage requirements for flares for vessels less than 13.7m in length. It states:  Pleasure vessels less than 13.7 metres in length are not covered by any statutory requirements for the carriage of Firefighting Equipment or Life-Saving Appliances, however, the owner has a duty of care under health and safety legislation where people are employed on-board (see Section 6.4). Owners and skippers should refer to the RYA and British Marine for guidance of any safety equipment for their vessels. 


The situation is significantly different for vessels over 13.7m length.  Here, for voyages more than three miles from the coast, they require three means of distress alerting, one of which must be via a suitable radio, one of which must be flares and one of which cannot be raising and lowering of arms. The mandatory flares must be 4 red hand fares and 2 orange smoke signals.

The RYA Guidelines for Distress Alerting that MGN 538 refers to, base their recommendations on three sea areas

  • Within 3 nautical miles of the coast
  • Within the GMDSS Sea Area A1, which is the pink area shown on the attached map, in which continuous alerting by DSC is available via VHF
  • Outside GMDSS Sea Area A1

The recommendations for sea area A1 concerning flares are:


Parachute Flares – the recommended modern method for alerting distress is a DSC VHF distress call or an EPIRB/ PLB. However if no other means of distress alerting is carried then 4 parachute flares should be.

Red Handheld Flares – These are valuable for ‘final mile’ locating by day and night and in poor visibility, but see EVDS below.

Smoke Signals, buoyant or handheld – Valuable for ‘final mile’ locating and in reasonable visibility. Contain no explosives. Must burn for a minimum of 3 minutes, but see EVDS below.

Electronic Visual Distress Signals (EVDS) – EVDS are not a recognised international distress signal and should not be relied on to signal you need assistance. They can be a useful alternative to red hand held flares and smoke signals for ‘final mile reporting’

As a matter of interest and comparison the UK does have strict carriage requirements for flares on yachts used for chartering. These are contained in the relevant Code of Practice, which, unless operating only in daylight and favourable weather are required to carry:

  • 4 Parachute flares
  • 6 red hand flares
  • 2 smoke signals

Concluding Remarks

For most of us the carriage of flares in UK waters is optional. We do need the ability to signal distress and your correspondent thinks it makes sense to follow the spirit of the MCA’s requirements for larger vessels and carry three modern means of distress alerting from the COLREGS list (not including waving the arms).  The RYA‘s table of  Guidelines should help individuals decide which to select according to personal, preference, sailing area and available finance.

Going Foreign

So, having outfitted your boat with distress signals, what happens when you ‘go foreign’?  There is a framework provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which defines whether a vessel is under the laws of its Flag state (i.e. the country where it is registered) or the Coastal or Port state where it is located at the time.

Le ‘Rumble Squad’ Francais

By cruising in another country’s waters, involving staying in ports or anchorages, a vessel submits to the jurisdiction of that country in the same way as a visitor on its soil does.  Although there is a principle of courteous recognition of the laws and institutions of the Flag state requirements, the Coastal state may expect compliance with some elements of its law concerning equipment of pleasure boats.  The RYA is a good source of information about  these requirements for various countries.

The nearest foreign destination for CYC cruisers is France. This is of particular interest to those of planning to set of to Cherbourg on the Yacht Section Rear Admiral’s Spring Cruise and Fun Race in 2016.

The Coast Guard department of the French Customs state one of their roles is to ensure “that users of boats and watercraft comply with the safety rules and regulations (rules for navigation, speed, safety equipment)”.  The Directorate-General for Infrastructure, Transport and the Sea have published a set of requirements for pleasure vessels less than 24m in length, the translation of which is on the members section of the RYA website.

It is reasonable to assume the Coast Guard will expect UK flagged vessels to be equipped similarly to French boats. The requirements for distress signalling equipment for vessels up to 60 nautical miles from a safe haven are:

  • Three hand held red flares
  • 1 fixed VHF radio OR 3 parachutes rocket s and 2 smoke flares
  • Up to date record of lights/ flares

The last item seems to be particularly important in France – if you carry flares they must be in date.

Robert Spencer, Yacht Section Technical and Safety : December 2015


Rampion wind farm.jpeg

Rampion Offshore Wind Limited
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (“the Secretary of State”) made the Rampion Wind Farm Order 2014 on 16th July 2014, granting consent for an offshore wind farm and ancillary works to be constructed and operated, 13km off the Sussex coast in the south of England.
The following safety zones have been applied for during construction of the wind farm:
A 500m safety zone around each structure during construction, as indicated by the presence of construction vessels;
Prior to commissioning:
A 50m safety zone around each structure whether they are installed and complete or incomplete awaiting commissioning.
During operation and maintenance of the wind farm:

Maintenance vessels: A 500m safety zone around all major maintenance being
undertaken around wind turbines, wind turbine foundation structures, offshore substation platform (major maintenance here is defined as any activity involving the large vessels (jack-up barge, floating barge, heavy lift vessel, DP/anchorage cable lay barge etc.)Rampion wind farm_2.jpeg

Copies of the Safety Zone Application and associated information may obtained from the developer of the Project, Rampion Offshore Wind Farm Ltd, by contacting the following:

Telephone: 0800 2800 886
Project website: