I am planning a cruise down to Trinidad from Florida, which does entail some days at sea, but for the most part it will be island-hopping. Is it really necessary to get the more expensive 406 EPIRB rather than the cheaper 121.5 model for this voyage?
Mark Matthews responds:
Thanks for the question. A few years ago I grappled with the issue of whether to get a 121.5 Mhz Mini-B or go for the 406 for a trip from San Francisco south to Mexico. We were only going to be hopping down the coast, after all, and it was hard to tell if the salesman in the store was trying to sell me the higher-priced item, or if he had a legitimate point about safety. It bit into the budget, but in the end I went for the 406.
The reason I pass this little anecdote along is that a lot of cruisers don't exactly have an itinerary that is set in stone. Destinations and routes change and change again. In my case what was going to be a trip to Mexico, ended up being a trip through the Panama Canal, and then back up to the US. My point is that it's better to keep your options open. What if you decide on a jaunt down the South American coast, or want to blast up to Maine by way of the Gulf Stream? In those scenarios, it's much better to have the 406. Sure, you could make long passages without any kind of EPIRB—most of seafaring history took place before the advent of this kind of technology, but quite a few mariners left port and never made it back as well.
Having an EPIRB on board any time you exceed the distance you can swim to shore makes a lot of sense to my way of thinking. Not only does the 406 include the 121.5-Mhz as a homing beacon, but it transmits coded information specific to your boat. This can prove invaluable to rescuers when it comes to calculating the probable set and drift of you or your vessel, to say nothing of the increased accuracy and reduced response time. Our experience in some areas of the Western Caribbean has been that it was hard to get a GPS fix at times, and I can only assume a 121.5-Mhz EPIRB could have a tough time relaying signals home as well.
Believe it or not, there are large expanses of the earth where no planes fly. Ever. Having the right safety equipment on board will give you a bit more piece of mind—and give those you've left ashore more piece of mind as well. EPIRBs aren't only for those on board, but they also serve those that are in port wondering how you are. I hope this proves useful.