I attended a
valuable presentation at the 2012 NSW Sea Kayak Club Rock n Roll sea
kayak symposium and also was lucky enough to participate in a search
and rescue exercise with a helicopter searching for us. I am
now reviewing what I am carrying in my PFD for signalling and I think
you will find this information interesting.
Firstly, at the presentation there were 4 guests. A
representative from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA), 2
blokes from the local volunteer marine rescue (VMR) and a helicopter
pilot who regularly conducts search and rescue (SAR) for people in the
water. If you haven’t a clue what AMSA do then let me tell
you, this bloke is the one who sits in the rescue coordination centre
(RCC) in Canberra and puts everything into action when you set off your
PLB or EPIRB device or if you are reported missing. He ran
through a few actual situations that have occurred and laid it on the
line that really, you are pretty stupid if you do not have a PLB or an
EPIRB. The following day I participated in a search
and rescue (SAR) exercise where we set off a training EPIRB whilst out
on the water in the dark before dawn. The helicopter came
looking for us and we did a night time search scenario and a day time
scenario setting off and using various signalling and position
indicating tools. It was valuable training for us in our
kayaks and for the helicopter search crew too.
Here are my conclusions.
Carry a PLB mounted on the shoulder of your PFD or an EPIRB with a
If you are going to have a PLB then the advice is that it must be
mounted on your shoulder so that you can deploy the antennae and then
attach it back into a shoulder mounted pouch so you have good
communication with the satellites. PLBs don’t float and they
are not going to work antennae down and you will probably be needing
your hands free. Shoulder mounting high on your PFD is best
for optimum performance.
Of course an EPIRB is much more successful than a PLB because it
floats. If you carry an EPIRB figure out a way to tether it
to your craft or to you because it is a bummer when they find the
device but not the person with it.
Actually, a mate of mine, paddler Paul Hayward and I had been
discussing PLB mounting pouches before the symposium and he has made me
a pouch to mount my PLB on my PFD, so the AMSA bloke just confirmed
that what Paul designed is spot on. Right are two photos
showing the pouch that my friend designed.
Note – some PLB
devices sold overseas and available online are not able to be
programmed for use in Australia, so buy your device in Australia and
save yourself the hassles and the advice on SPOT messenger was that it
is great to let your friends know what you are up to on expedition with
OK messages, but not reliable or recommended by AMSA for use in an
Keep the Registration Information for your PLB/EPIRB up to date with
So, you set off your PLB or EPIRB and what they are going to do is
establish your position and check what you have registered online
device (e.g. craft type, registered trips, emergency contact numbers
that you have listed etc). Then they are going to start
telephoning you and people on your list to see if you are indeed out
kayaking and in distress. Sometimes these devices go off
accidentally and they will call you to establish if a rescue is indeed
Have appropriate people as your emergency contacts.
In your emergency
contacts registered for your device you should list people who are
likely to know your whereabouts and your kayaking plans. You
can update your device registry at any time. There is no
point to list your mum, unless she knows where you are kayaking.
Let’s say you
are out there bobbing around in the water. Maybe with or
without a kayak. Your PLB has been set off, now
what? Be prepared for a wait! AMSA only own 5
rescue helicopters. They can also draw on resources from
other organisations such as the military, but this all takes time to
coordinate. If you are close to a Volunteer Marine Rescue
facility or other boats then these are your next option whilst waiting
for that helicopter. On weekends it may take 1.5 hours for
helicopter to deploy, so I hope you are dressed
appropriately. Your next line of defence is your VHF
radio. Like the PLB/EPIRB you should use this at the earliest
time that things are looking like going pear shaped. Do not
wait until it gets dark! Get on the radio and call for
assistance. There is also a new feature available on some
radios where you can read your position coordinates off the radio
screen– handy in an emergency call I think. If you have a VHF
that is DSC capable then you can transmit your position at the touch of
a button and the rescue chopper is fitted out to receive this
message. Craft in the area and VMR will also get an alert
tone broadcast over their radio when you push the
Signalling your Position
helicopter pilot explained to us how difficult it is to see a kayaker
in the water, let alone, a person without their kayak. The
things that will help you get spotted are:
- Strobe mounted
high on the shoulder of your PFD: In perfect conditions this
was spotted from 2NM by helicopter SAR wearing night vision goggles
(NVGs). This was double the range of a head torch (visible at 1NM).
- Sea marker Dye
will make a large green mark in the water that they spot easily from
- VHF Radio to
talk to the helicopter – that way you know for sure if they have seen
you or not and you can tell them when you hear and see them approaching.
- Flares – the
Orange smoke canister was very effective and long lasting and hands
free for day time use. Red hand helds and pen flares were
great in the dark but short lived.
- Laser Flare – never
expires or runs out and was very very
effective - $100 well spent I think
- Signalling Mirror –
could be used, I saw a few people with a CD stashed
in their PFD or on the kayak for this purpose.
- The helicopter is looking for you with Night Vision Goggles so go to town with all the light sources that you have.
Helicopter has a big light called the ‘night sun’ – you are going to
hear the helicopter coming and when they turn on the Night Sun it feels
very reassuring! Radio them on channel 16 and tell them when you
hear and see them.
- Tassie does
not have a rescue helicopter, it flies from Melbourne, so you will be
sitting around for some time down there - Dress appropriately...In the
presentation they told us a pair of kayakers waited around 6 hours to
be rescued on the west coast of Tassie once.
on with VMR before you paddle, then they know where to look and who to
look for, and have a ‘let someone know before you go’ system in place.
the helicopter finds you they may drop a very large flare into the
water close by so that they do not lose track of where you are.
This flare is self-scuttling, that is, it blows up when it is done, so
do not paddle over to it, keep a good distance away e.g. 50-100metres.
they are searching for you AMSA have technology to generate a drift
model and develop a search area. This can then be provided to VMR
and police for use when coordinating the search.
you have an old PLB or EPIRB to dispose of, do not put it in the
rubbish bin! These guys are having a lot of time wasted digging
up transmitting PLBs from rubbish dumps. Old beacons can be
disposed of at Battery World (http://batteryworld.com.au/store-list ) free of charge.
- Read this helicopter pilot report (link).
- RCC info that you should know: http://www.amsa.gov.au/Search_and_Rescue/
Buoyant Orange Smoke canister (like the one in the water shown at
right) is ideal for sea kayakers because you set it off and then
throw it in the water, leaving your hands free to get on the VHF, brace
in swell etc. They are acceptable instead of 2 orange handheld
flares. These can be purchased in Perth from Fendercare Australia
(in Fremantle) for $44 plus GST (at the time of writing this
article). The minimum spend at Fendercare for cash sales though
is $100, so you could team up with another kayaker to purchase ( http://www.fendercare.com.au/).
Wilson Marine in South Freo ‘can also order the canisters in for
you. RFD at Rous Head is another supplier that you could
try. I always have one of these smoke canisters in my day hatch.
smoke canister floating near the kayaks
Green sea marker dye
Laser flare pointed at the helicopter and aimed betreen his fingers.
A PDF version of this article is available for download here (277KB).