Choosing the right emergency beacon for your boat
Choosing the right emergency beacon for your boat

Ensure the safety of you and your family while sailing by choosing the right emergency beacon for your boat - read our guide to find out how.

Choosing the Right Emergency Beacon for Your Boat

As you embark on your sailing adventure with your family, safety should always be a top priority. One essential piece of safety equipment that every boat should have is an emergency beacon. In this article, we will discuss the different types of emergency beacons available, their features, and how to choose the right one for your boat. We will also cover the importance of registering your beacon and maintaining it properly.

Table of Contents

Why You Need an Emergency Beacon

An emergency beacon is a device that sends out a distress signal in the event of an emergency, such as a man overboard situation, a sinking boat, or any other life-threatening situation. The signal is picked up by search and rescue (SAR) organizations, who will then initiate a rescue operation.

Having an emergency beacon on board can mean the difference between life and death in a critical situation. It allows you to quickly and effectively alert SAR teams of your location and the nature of your emergency, increasing your chances of being found and rescued in a timely manner.

Types of Emergency Beacons

There are three main types of emergency beacons that you can choose from: EPIRBs, PLBs, and AIS MOB devices. Each type has its own unique features and benefits, so it’s important to understand the differences before making a decision.


Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) are specifically designed for use on boats. They transmit a distress signal on the 406 MHz frequency, which is monitored by the international Cospas-Sarsat satellite system. This system is dedicated to search and rescue operations and provides global coverage.

EPIRBs are typically larger and more expensive than other types of beacons, but they offer some key advantages. They have a longer battery life, usually around 48 hours, and are designed to float and automatically activate when submerged in water. Some models also include a built-in GPS, which can provide SAR teams with your exact location.


Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are smaller, more portable versions of EPIRBs. They also transmit a distress signal on the 406 MHz frequency and are monitored by the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system. However, PLBs are designed for personal use and can be carried by individuals, making them suitable for a variety of outdoor activities, not just boating.

PLBs have a shorter battery life than EPIRBs, usually around 24 hours, and may not float or automatically activate in water. They are generally less expensive than EPIRBs, but you should consider the specific features and limitations of each model before making a decision.

AIS MOB Devices

Automatic Identification System (AIS) Man Overboard (MOB) devices are designed to alert nearby vessels of a man overboard situation. They transmit a distress signal on the AIS VHF frequency, which can be picked up by any AIS-equipped vessel within range.

AIS MOB devices are typically smaller and more affordable than EPIRBs and PLBs, but they have some limitations. They do not transmit a signal to the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system, so their range is limited to nearby vessels. They also have a shorter battery life, usually around 7-8 hours.

Features to Consider

When choosing an emergency beacon for your boat, there are several features to consider. These features can impact the effectiveness of the beacon in an emergency situation, as well as its ease of use and maintenance.

Battery Life

The battery life of your emergency beacon is crucial, as it determines how long the beacon can transmit a distress signal before the battery runs out. EPIRBs typically have the longest battery life, followed by PLBs and AIS MOB devices.

It’s important to choose a beacon with a battery life that meets your needs and to regularly check and replace the battery as needed. Most beacons have a battery life indicator, and some models even have a user-replaceable battery.

GPS Integration

Some emergency beacons include a built-in GPS, which can provide SAR teams with your exact location. This can significantly speed up the rescue process, as it eliminates the need for SAR teams to triangulate your position using the beacon’s signal alone.

GPS integration is more common in EPIRBs, but some PLBs and AIS MOB devices also include this feature. If you choose a beacon without GPS, you can still provide your location by manually entering it into the beacon, but this may not be as accurate or timely as a GPS-enabled beacon.

Water Activation

Many EPIRBs are designed to automatically activate when submerged in water, which can be a lifesaving feature in the event of a sinking boat. Some PLBs and AIS MOB devices also include this feature, but it’s less common.

If you choose a beacon without water activation, you’ll need to manually activate it in an emergency. This can be more difficult in a stressful situation, so it’s important to familiarize yourself with the activation process and practice it regularly.

Strobe Light

Some emergency beacons include a built-in strobe light, which can help SAR teams visually locate you in low-light conditions. This can be especially useful in a man overboard situation, where the person in the water may be difficult to see.

A strobe light is not a substitute for a proper distress signal, such as a flare or a signal mirror, but it can be a valuable addition to your safety equipment.

Size and Weight

The size and weight of your emergency beacon can impact its portability and ease of use. PLBs are generally the smallest and lightest option, followed by AIS MOB devices and EPIRBs.

Consider where you plan to store your beacon on your boat and whether you need a portable option that can be easily carried by individuals. Smaller, lighter beacons may be more convenient, but they may also have shorter battery life or fewer features.

Registering Your Beacon

Once you’ve chosen an emergency beacon, it’s important to register it with the appropriate national authority. In the United States, this is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Registering your beacon ensures that SAR teams have access to your contact information and other important details in the event of an emergency.

Registration is free and can usually be completed online. Be sure to update your registration information if any of your details change, such as your boat’s name or your emergency contact information.

Maintenance and Testing

Regular maintenance and testing are essential to ensure that your emergency beacon is functioning properly and ready for use in an emergency. Most beacons have a self-test function, which allows you to check the battery life, signal strength, and other key features.

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance and testing, and replace the battery as needed. Some beacons have a user-replaceable battery, while others require professional servicing.


Choosing the right emergency beacon for your boat is an important step in ensuring the safety of you and your family on your sailing adventures. Consider the different types of beacons, their features, and your specific needs when making your decision.

Remember to register your beacon, maintain it properly, and test it regularly to ensure that it’s ready for use in an emergency. With the right emergency beacon on board, you can have peace of mind knowing that help is just a signal away.