TECHNIQUE How much is your safety worth on board?


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securityWhat devices to have on board to increase the safety standards of your boat and crew? How much do they cost and what mistakes should you not make in using them? Ocean navigator Sergio Frattaruolo explains.


“I finally notice, even in my courses, that the ‘technical’ culture related to personal safety devices on board is increasing. There are those who know what a PLB, an EPIRB, an AIS MOB is (but we explain it anyway at the bottom of the article, ed.): what is still lacking is awareness of their real usefulness.” Speaking is Sergio Frattaruolo, ocean sailor and founder of the offshore sailing school Extreme Sail Academy. Sergio has also been professionally involved in new technologies and is the right person to answer the simple, but by no means trivial, question we have been asking.

How much is safety worth on board? “I will preface this by saying that technology on board is not a substitute for carrying out proper procedures and experience, but it has helped raise safety standards and help us solve critical situations. And this applies to every sphere of our lives: transportation (cars, trains, planes), medicine… So, in my opinion, it is foolish not to take advantage of it, especially in boating, and we will see why. Effectively elevating the level of safety on board requires dedicated equipment and therefore has its own cost, no use getting your hopes up. The important thing is to choose wisely.”


“No one would dream of replacing, in their car, an airbag with a pillow tied with tape on the dashboard or steering wheel. In the event of an impact, perhaps the cushion may also have its effectiveness, but that is not the purpose for which it was made. My comparison may seem like an exaggeration, but likewise, we should not confuse devices that were born for communication, such as satellite phones and trackers, from equipment designed for use in rescue, such as EPIRBs and PLBs. To be sure, the former also raise safety standards on board, but that is not the purpose for which they were designed: they have batteries that drain, they are not fully waterproof and shockproof, they are not subject to restrictive certifications, and they have increasingly complex software-bound to the various functionalities they offer-that sometimes generate problems. If this happens to you, know that it is not the products that are wrong. But your use of it.”

Frattaruolo’s consideration comes from experience: “Last year, sailing together with the students on my Class40 from the Azores to Lisbon, we happened to have our tracker with SOS functionality, a very good brand, ‘fizzled’ on the first day and was left with the screen locked, without the ability to reset it until the battery ran out. The device had not taken water, it had not been dropped. It simply did not work, and for five days of browsing we had to do without it. Fortunately, the transfer went well, even weather-wise. Imagine the same situation while you are, with your loved ones, in a serious emergency situation!”


This consideration opens up another theme: “On a mental level, we tend not to think that safety devices capable of launching distress messages will be used in extreme conditions. Hence my advice. Choose models from well-known brands that have already been abundantly tested in the market. You cannot be the tester of a life-saving technology. A good Epirb-whose SOS signal is associated with the boat-should never be missing on board, while each crew member should have a ‘safety kit’ consisting of a self-inflating life jacket, PLB, AIS MOB, and LED hand fire.

You have to ask, what is our safety and that of our crew worth? The answer is: much more than the amount of money to invest in the safety upgrade on your boat.” Speaking of costs, “try to estimate how much the kit will cost you: 250 euros for a good self-inflating jacket, another 250 for a PLB, 250 for an AIS MOB and 100 euros of LED flares. Total: 850 euros. Now try to imagine yourself in the water, fallen overboard in the night, caught in cold and despair with a high probability of not returning home. To get out of this situation, wouldn’t you spend 900 euros, amortized over 4 to 5 years, which is the time the batteries will run out?”


On the subject of batteries, Frattaruolo continues, “Today it is very ‘cool’ to buy EPIRBs, AIS MOBs, and PLBs that include the ability to change the battery yourself, saving on service. Unless you are a good electronics professional and know exactly how to operate, I strongly advise against it. Water finds any way in, all it takes is a failed or poorly fitted gasket, a screw not tightened to compromise the integrity of the apparatus. Remember that you will use these tools in borderline situations; you will probably be in desperate water. Given that these devices normally require a battery change after at least 4 years (subject to the legal requirements of individual countries), I believe this is sufficient time to amortize the cost of these devices.”


Sergio is up-to-date on on-board safety technologies-we asked him if there are any new developments that could come to help on the boat.
“I was impressed with so-called ‘Engine Kill Switches,’ such as the OLAS Guardian developed by ACR: these are systems consisting of a control unit to be installed on board that connects with crew-worn wristbands. If someone falls into the water, they not only send a MOB signal on board-this technology has been around for a long time-but simultaneously stop the engine. These devices originated for the world of powerboats and inflatable boats, but I see a future for them on sailboats as well. Think of the world of charters, family cruises, and transfers. There is a lot of motor sailing in these situations. Knowing that if you fall into the water the boat will stop immediately, moving away only as far as inertia will allow, is a source of less mental stress for the man overboard and for those who will have to perform the recovery maneuver.”


LED Flare, PLB, EPIRB, Engine Kill Switch, AIS MOB. Are you sure you know what they are, how they work, how much they cost, and where to find them? We help you


They have now caught on and are undermining traditional signal fires. These are hand-held fires that use LED (or in some cases Laser) technology to signal their location once activated. Unlike traditional fires that run for about 30 seconds, they provide a very long duration, even over 5 hours. Plus you can turn them off and on on command, and they are not single-use. Great one from ODEO( that cost less than 100 euros each, or Ocean Signal’s EDF1s(


PLBs (Personal Locator Beacons) are satellite locators for both maritime and terrestrial personal use: when needed, they send an SOS signal on the 406 MHz frequency. These are small, waterproof and often buoyant devices that must be carried along. They are activated by hand, pulling out the antenna and pressing the power button. They have a strobe light that emits intermittent flashes and GPS for precise location. The transmission of the distress call takes 24 hours and can be picked up by the satellites of the COSPAS-SARSAT international distress system. There are many models on the market, here are some under 300 euros: ResQLink 400 by ACR(, Rescue Me PLB1 by Ocean Signal(, Fastfind 220 by McMurdo(


In an emergency, the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is the only life-saving instrument that can accurately report the position of the boat in distress, alerting help. Not surprisingly, it is mandatory on board for navigation beyond 50 miles. They transmit on the same frequency as the PLB (406 MHz) and also have a built-in GPS for easier localization, but unlike these they are able to activate automatically in the most severe cases of emergency (such as sinking), and the SOS message that is issued is associated with the boat and not the person. The larger size of an EPIRB makes the battery last longer; signal transmission should last at least 48 hours. Prices on the market range from 350 to 900 euros for the most advanced models. Here are some reliable and proven models: RescueMe Epirb1(, Globalfix V4(, McMurdo Smartfind G8 AIS (with AIS included) and Kannad SafePro(, GME MT603FG(


It is a compact, portable and waterproof device that you can keep with you at all times: if you fall overboard, once activated (manually or automatically) it transmits an AIS (Automatic Identification System) alarm radio signal for at least 24 hours, which can be viewed by all ships within a 4-7 mile radius equipped with a receiver compatible with the same technology: it goes without saying that if you have AIS on board integrated into your instrument network you will be able to receive the alarm and the position of the man overboard on your chartplotter. The best models also integrate GPS. There are also MOB AIS systems that work with multiple sensors: a control unit in the boat and transceivers on the wrist or in the pockets of crew members. The prices for a good product do not exceed 300 euros: for example, an AisLink MOB( costs 250 euros, a RescueMe MOB1( a little more.


A digital evolution of the old wrist-mounted “lanyard” attached to the engine that was used on dinghies and small boats, this is a compact control unit that must be installed on board and acts as a wireless switch that will turn off the engine, within a maximum of two seconds,
From the moment a person falls overboard. The control unit communicates with wristbands (or sometimes compact floating lights) worn by each crew member which, if someone falls overboard, will send a MOB alert on board. Using dedicated apps, the alarm will be replicated on the crew’s phones indicating the direction from which the alarm originated. A model like ACR’s OLAS Guardian( is good for 50-foot boats and costs about 230 euros. There are many other models on the market, such as the MOB Wireless Kill Switch from Fell Marine(

Edited by Eugenio Ruocco

Who is our expert. Sergio Frattaruolo was born in Bologna, Italy, in 1969 and has a lot of miles on his “rump,” in the Mediterranean and on the ocean. In 2011 he crossed the Atlantic participating in the Mini Transat, and in 2012 he was in the Global Ocean Race (around the world in doubles on Class 40s). On the Class 40 Calaluna, he takes part in the most important offshore races in the Mediterranean. In 2013 he founded the Extreme Sail Academy in Lisbon: an offshore sailing school aimed at everyone. In 2015, he and his students won the record on the Discovery Route in the up to 40-foot category.



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