Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets

Three key categories of marine safety gear for boaters.

To survive a boating accident, you need to mentally rehearse your responses to as many possible risks as you can imagine. The most important safety equipment on board is your brain. But here are three of the most important safety devices you should carry.

Electronic Flares

Pyrotechnic flares were once the only rescue flares approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. Not anymore. Recognizing the inherent risk of burning flares, particularly on small, crowded inflatable rafts, and noting the short burn time, the Coast Guard wisely adopted standards for approved electronic flares. Some have shelf lives of decades, not months, and provide an important cost savings and an extra margin of safety over burning flares. But so far, only one LED flare meets Coast Guard standards for rescue equipment.

The Coasties require these flares to be visible for 7 miles. We wanted to see how they compared to each other and set up a special test by setting reflective targets at intervals on a 210-yard golf fairway and noting the distance at which we saw the rescue lights’ illumination reflected in the targets. These were our top contenders.

Weems and Plath SOS Distress Light No. C-1001

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
Can this electronic light eliminate pyrotechnic flares?Bill Doster

This patented floating device activates with a twist of its Fresnel lens, emitting an SOS signal reportedly visible as far as 10 nautical miles. It satisfies Coast Guard signal carriage requirements, but only for recreational boats and only when accompanied with a day-signal orange flag — which is included in each package. The latter eliminates the need to carry flammable, toxic chemical-fire or smoke flares.

Summary: This signal was simple to activate and required no additional assistance once activated. It is waterproof, floats and comes with a lanyard. The light was far brighter than we expected from a single LED. Spare batteries in the ditch bag add life, and in our examination, it appeared durable enough to stand up to bangs and knocks during storage and deployment.

Coast Guard Approved: Yes
SOLAS Approved: No
Shelf Life: Unlimited with periodic battery changes
Burn-Time Specs: 60 hours
Visibility: 10 nautical miles
Powered By: Three C-cells
Reflector Range: 210 yards; the farthest reflectors began to show diminishing light but were still surprisingly strong for a single LED.

Ocean Signal RescueME EDF1

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
A bright, long-burning life-jacket light.Bill Doster

The EDF1 operates in several light modes, ranging from economy to high to ultra. It emits a red emergency strobe light in a 360-degree hemisphere broadly visible from land, sea and air. When it’s fastened to a vest, it also has a beam function that operates the LEDs on only one side. A trigger guard protects the device from accidental activation to protect the batteries. An SOS setting simplifies signaling distress.

Summary: The device is easy to use, the instructions are graphically printed right on it, and it projects light in a hemispherical orientation to be visible above and at 360 degrees. We liked the automatic SOS function. It doesn't float and can be tethered to a vest but requires attention to keep it visible on the water's surface. Our judgment is it would be a useful addition to a ditch bag, ideal for night distress signaling but unable to meet day-signal carriage requirements of pyro flares.

Coast Guard Approved: No
SOLAS Approved: No
Shelf Life: Five years (per warranty)
Burn-Time Specs: Six hours
Waterproof: Yes (10 meters)
Visibility: Up to 7 nautical miles
Powered By: Lithium-ion battery
Reflector Range: 150 yards

Personal Locator Beacons

At one time, personal locator beacons served only to send a one-way message via satellite to rescue personnel. The wait for rescue is always painful, but more so when you don’t know if anybody knows you need it. Today, however, PLBs have improved astronomically because they can also use satellites for other communications, such as texts, family tracking and the ability to summon non-emergency towing assistance. Some can even receive a message, such as “help is on the way.”

We cold-started each device and initiated a test message to see how long it took to link to its satellite constellation and receive the message via Gmail. We assume this process should approximate the time needed to send and receive an SOS.

ACR ResQLink+

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
The ACR ResQLink+ floats.Bill Doster

The one-way standard for emergency personal locator beacons, it communicates with high-orbit satellites, transmitting the distress signal. General rescue locale is determined mathematically by the satellites and reported directly to rescue operators. Once they’re in the vicinity, the PLB is tracked by its locator beacon.

Self-Test: Receive an email and/or SMS text message confirming receipt of your beacon self-test using the optional subscription service at 406link.
Rescue Networks: Cospas-Sarsat, FCC, Canada, R&TTE, Australia, New Zealand
Coverage: Worldwide
Cool Because: The self-test function lets you know the PLB is hooked up and running. A rescue strobe aids night location during rescue. Also, it connects directly to international Cospas-Sarsat rescue authorities.
Pros: It gave the fastest "OK" transmit time in our test and offers free replacement if it saves your bacon. The communications subscription at 406link.com also gives low-battery notifications.
Cons: It's able to send only one preprogrammed message.
Bests: Communicates with the oldest, most prestigious emergency rescue response teams from around the entire world
GPS: 66 channels
Buoyant: Yes
Waterproof: 16.4 feet/floats
Weight: 5.4 ounces
Battery Type: Nonhazmat lithium
Battery Life: 30 hours
Warranty: Five years
Rescue Communications: Cospas-Sarsat
Activation Process: Register at beaconregistration.noaa​.gov/rgdb. Subscribe to communications services at 406link.
Activation Cost/Year: Cospas-Sarsat, free; annual fee for confirmation emails, SMS and low-battery notice
Time for Satellite Connection: One minute

DeLorme InReach Explorer

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
The DeLorme InReach Explorer is a three-in-one device.Bill Doster

This device is a handheld three-in-one GPS, PLB and two-way satellite communicator. Save and store waypoints and navigate back to them while tracking progress on a color-coded map. A digital compass, altimeter and accelerometer improve utility. Connect iOS or Android devices loaded with the free DeLorme Earthmate app via Bluetooth and you can download maps, track your progress on the Web, and create and manage routes and navigate to them. The device becomes an operating partner with the InReach.

Self-Test: You can send and receive text messages worldwide using the Iridium system. Send 160-character text messages to five established contacts. Link it with the Earthmate app to receive and share your position.
Rescue Networks: The international GEOS rescue coordination center receives SOS messages 24/7 and arranges local rescue assets.
Coverage: Worldwide
Cool Because: With the InReach service, you can plan trips, routes and messaging online and execute them with the device. Pelagic anglers use the device in partnership with Roffer's sea-temperature service to update custom fishing plans.
Pros: Two-way communications are fun and reassuring.
Cons: The small screen makes navigation awkward.
Bests: Most versatile adventure tool
GPS: 32 channels
Buoyant: No, but a floating sleeve is available.
Waterproof: 3.3 feet
Weight: 6.7 ounces
Battery Type: Lithium
Battery Life: 100 hours
Warranty: One year
Rescue Communications: Iridium satellite network, two-way information
Activation Process: Register online, select communications service, and designate contacts
Time for Satellite Connection: Eight minutes (one minute for a reply)

Life Jackets

The numbers are sobering. According to the 2016 Recreational Boating Statistics published by the U.S. Coast Guard, 80 percent of boating deaths are due to drowning, 83 percent of victims were not wearing a life jacket, and two-thirds of drowning victims are good swimmers. While boating deaths have been trending downward, 701 people still died as a result of boating accidents during 2016. Choosing to wear a life jacket is the best way ensure fewer boating deaths.

But which life jacket should you choose? There are an astoundng array of styles and types of life jackets to choose from. To help you make the best selection, we’ve tested these two highly wearable examples for your consideration.

Bass Pro Shops A/24 In-Sight

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
The A/24 In-Sight offers comfort and high buoyancy.Bill Doster

You wear an inflatable life jacket because it’s like not wearing one, and you want them to look good too. This one is styled up with contrasting colors, plus reflective patches that can be illuminated hundreds of yards from a light source. The neoprene collar adds comfort in the places it inevitably contacts the neck and face. A handy D-ring makes a good place to attach accessories and tools.

Pros: We like its look, feel, and the proven reliability of its trigger system. At 22.5 pounds of flotation, that's almost 50 percent more buoy­ancy than a standard Type III life jacket.
Cons: The dissolving bobbin trigger takes three to five seconds to inflate the vest — hence, they are only recommended for swimmers.
Buoyancy: 22.5 pounds
Trigger: Dissolving bobbin
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 52 inches
Closure: Hook-and-loop tape (not speaking of the buckle)
Rearm: Annually or after use
Test Results: In most of our tests, the crash-test dummy went straight down to the bottom, but in this trial, he fell sideways into the water, floundering at the surface. The inflatable bobbin trigger activated just as rapidly as it did in competitors and stabilized the victim.
Rearming: The Velcro collar closures are easier to manage than zippers and were reliable in our testing. Choosing between them is a matter of preference.
Conclusions: Marketed for inland boaters, it still boasts over 20 pounds of buoyancy, more than standard offshore life jackets.
Best For: Because of its smaller bladder size, it is recommended for inland and inshore boating, where rescue is apt to be faster and seas calmer.

Mustang Survival Elite 38 Model MD5283

Electronic Flares, Personal Locator Beacons and Lifejackets
Mustang’s Elite 38 MD5283 is fast-inflating and reliable.Bill Doster

Mustang Survival is the brand many commercial mariners have relied on since 1967. That the jackets are pricier is immediately apparent and supported in style and design. Foremost, the hydrostatic trigger inflates the air bladder the moment it sinks 4 inches below the water, which is when hydrostatic pressure triggers it. Finely woven nylon fabric is tough, the cut minimizes chafing around the face and neck, and rubber reinforcement protects the most exposed areas. The back is wide and soft for support and comfort and ventilated for warm-weather wear.

Pros: Hydrostatic inflaters are the fastest inflaters and can't be triggered by rain or spray. The provided 38 pounds of buoyancy is enough to right an unconscious person and hold their face out of the water in the roughest conditions.
Cons: The trigger system is heavier and bulkier and costs more than lighter-weight but slower-dissolving bobbin-triggered devices.
Buoyancy: 38 pounds
Chest Size: Fits 30 to 52 inches
Trigger: Hydrostatic
Closure: Nylon zipper
Rearm: Annually
Test Results: The hydrostatic trigger activated almost immediately after being dunked and surfaced in our test.
Rearming: The CO2 cartridge and trigger are fixed together, and the cartridge fits inside the air bladder. The process is tricky; once accomplished, it's easily repeated.
Conclusions: Hydrostatic triggers won't deploy because of dampness caused by rain and don't rely on a dissolving bobbin.
Best For: These are the most expensive devices, and the rearming kits include a new hydrostatic sensor, so we recommend them for serious offshore boaters or professionals who are accustomed to detailed maintenance of all their gear.