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Beacon credited with quick rescue of teen sailor Abby Sunderland

Submitted by on 1, June 24, 2010 – 5:00 am3 Comments

Senior Chief Petty Officer Douglas Samp at the Pacific Area Command Center in Alameda. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Photo courtesy of Douglas Samp

At 5:20 a.m. on June 10, an alarm sounded at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Command Center here in Alameda. A California-based sailor had set off an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), and the signal had bounced from a satellite to the Alameda command center, where the vessel’s name and an emergency contact appeared on a screen.

The vessel’s name was Wild Eyes, and the contact was Laurence Sunderland, whose 16-year-old daughter, Abby, was attempting to become the youngest sailor to circumnavigate the globe. And one of the Coast Guard commanders who helped coordinate efforts to rescue Abby credited the EPIRB with helping to quickly facilitate her rescue.

Within 45 minutes of Abby’s activation of the beacon – one of two she activated and three onboard – the Coast Guard was able to pinpoint her location in the Indian Ocean. And they began coordinating her rescue with their counterparts in France and Australia.

“We knew exactly where she was at,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Douglas Samp, who took charge of the center two hours after the distress call came in, said in an interview this week.

The device, which looks like a walkie talkie on steroids, can cost anywhere from $300 for a small, personal locator to $2,000 for a more deluxe version. But Samp said it’s essential equipment for sailors, even if they’re just out for a jaunt on San Francisco Bay.

“You could be in the middle of the Bay, but if nobody knows you’re in trouble, you might as well be in the middle of the Indian Ocean,” Samp said.

He credited a similar device with helping to save the crew of the J World, which hit a pod of whales and sank during the Baja Ha-Ha race in 2009. He said that the Coast Guard was able to get to the crew’s life raft, which was 200 miles south of San Diego, about three hours after they activated the device.

A recent Coast Guard blog post on Abby’s rescue said that since 1982, the devices have saved 26,000 mariners across the globe.

Samp said the Pacific Area Command Center gets about 1,200 EPIRB alarms a year, though only about five percent of those end up being actual distress calls (the rest are false alarms).

If the device is properly registered, the Coast Guard will receive the vessel’s name, emergency contact and other information. And if it’s a newer model of the device, authorities will have an easier time pinpointing its owner’s location.

EPIRBs have been available since the 1970s, but the technology has vastly improved in the last few years. The 406 megahertz beacons that have become available over the last few years are less prone to interference than earlier models because they are on a dedicated frequency.

When Samp was stationed in Guam, he got a number of distress calls that turned out to be signals from a malfunctioning cable wire in the Northern Mariana Islands, the 20-year Coast Guard vet said.

Abby is expected to arrive at Reunion Island, which is near Madagascar, today or Friday, according to her blog. According to news reports, she is “in awe” of the coordinated, international effort to rescue her. A French fishing vessel picked her up three days after she set her distress beacon off.

And while the devices are not required, Samp said the Coast Guard highly recommends that all sailors – from transoceanic travelers to boaters cruising the Delta – purchase one.

“It takes the ‘search’ out of ‘search and rescue,’ ” he said.

More information on the devices is here, and the 406 megahertz devices can be registered online or by calling (866) 212-SAVE. Beacon registration has to be updated every two years, or whenever emergency contact or other information changes.

The Coast Guard also recommends that sailors file a float plan with a friend or family member on land before heading out on the water, with an approximate time of return and location. Sample plans are here.


  • NickB says:

    for anyone interested, McMurdo makes a pretty tiny Personal Locator Beacon (FastFind 210) sold at REI for about $250. I use it for windsurfing in the Bay, and I hope I never have to push the button. But it’s a small price to pay for peace of mind…

  • Terry Winckler says:

    Doug is a really great guy who is highly involved with Boy Scout Troop 73 here in Alameda, recently training many scouts in navigation and helmsmanship skills.

  • bob says:

    while I’m glad Abby is safe and rescued and none of her rescuers came to harm, this was a very irresponsible act by Abby and her parents. She had a boat that only had 1 month of preparation before departure which was to be a nonstop solo circumnavigation. She had to stop in CABO because of problems. She had to stop in Capetown because of problems. She averaged less than 5 knots on a 40 ft high speed racing boat. This delayed her trip so that when she left Capetown recently- she was in the dangerous southern ocean in the middle of winter (our summer). Professional ocean racers don’t sail there at that time of the year because of the hazard. Why? Because she was trying for an unofficial record of being youngest around the world that had been set by Jessica Watson (who broke Abby brother record). She would be too old if she waited for the normal weather window. There was also a plan for a reality TV show based on this attempt.

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