Back To Survival Mode, The PLB

Sorry for interrupting my long and boring dissertation on survival with an even longer one about my vacation but it’s over and done with now so let’s get back to business shall we?

When we last left Charles (our poor unlucky pilot) he was happily bobbing along in the North Atlantic without a care in the world. He didn’t lose his DO NOT LOSE! bag containing his PLB (personal locator beacon) Sat. phone and hand held aviation radio. Time for ET to call home.

First things first, turn on the PLB to let the everyone i.e. search and rescue forces, (SAR) know where you are and that you would like a ride, please and thank you. The PLB I carry is the ResQlink by Artex.


     It’s a simple device to use. Just extend the antenna, push the power button and it’s on. The PLB transmits a powerful 406 MHz distress signal that will be picked up by satellites anywhere in the world, even the poles. It also transmits on 121.5 that SAR can use to home in on you. One of the great features of a PLB is that imbedded in the distress signal is your current GPS location. Kind of handy when you’re bobbing around in the middle of the ocean. The damn thing even has a strobe light on it to help SAR find you at night. Pretty cool. But nothing’s perfect. The PLB does have a few drawbacks when you’re in a life raft. Number one is turning it on because the power button is tiny. There is no way you’re going activate the unit wearing any kind of gloves let alone the thick neoprene ones integrated in a survival suit. That means you have to take a glove off, if your suit has removable gloves, or pull an entire arm out if it doesn’t. I have thought about cutting a slit in the wrist of the suit to allow me to get my hand out without taking my entire arm out but that would compromise the integrity of the suit. Haven’t decided on that one yet. While I was writing this  I had a thought (yes that happens every once in a while) “Could I possibly turn the unit on with my teeth?” After a little experimenting the I concluded that the answer is, maybe. Better than no, I guess. But that’s not the biggest problem when it comes to using a PLB in a life raft. The manual says that in order for the unit to work the antenna needs to be held vertically and needs a clear view of the sky. Not under trees, not shielded by your body, not underwater, and not inside your clothes. And there’s the problem because to survive in a raft in the North Atlantic you need be in one with a cover and the cover is going to block the signal. Bummer.

So class, today’s problem to you need to overcome is how to give the PLB’s antenna a clear view of the sky while sitting in a raft with a cover. Oh I forgot to mention not only does the antenna need to have a clear view but the GPS does too. (See the little square marked “GPS Give clear view if the sky”? That thing. So just sticking the beacon antenna out of the raft won’t work.

1.  Leave the cover down or the door open. Sure, that would work but remember you’re out as sea and waiting for a boat to come and get you. This is going to take a really long time and if you leave the cover down or the door open you will freeze to death before help arrives, that is if you don’t get washed overboard first. It’s an ocean not a lake. So that’s not gonna work.

2.  Just open the door enough to stick you hand out. That way you can hold the PLB in your hand clear of the cover and not let too much cold air and water inside the raft. This would be better than option 1. but it would still require you to have an open hole in the raft cover and if you’re in rough seas it might let a lot of cold water inside. I also think you’re hand and arm would get pretty damn cold after 8, 10, 24 hours outside. If it’s wintertime you’d probably lose the hand to frostbite andI like my hand thank you very much.

3.  Attach a line to the PLB and attach it to the outside of the raft. Now we’re talking! Because once you get it tied to the raft you can zip up and stay dry and warm inside. Snug as a bug. You can wrap up in any space blankets or cheap rain ponchos to keep warm, I have both in my survival kit, have both hands free to operate the Sat. phone or radio, hang onto the sides of the raft if things get rough, play patty cake with yourself to pass the time, anything. Another benefit to having the PLB tied to the outside of the raft is that the strobe light on it would always be exposed possibly helping SAR locate you if you happen to be asleep or unconscious when they arrive. Unfortunately every plan has it’s drawbacks. The first problem would be attaching a line to the PLB itself. Mine has two thin plastic loops on the top and bottom that have a Velcro strap threaded through them. these would make good attachment points but they seem a little flimsy and when plastic gets cold it gets brittle. Hate the have them break off in heavy seas and lose the unit. Cause that would be bad. Unfortunately those loops are the only thing you could use. The rest of the unit is round and smooth. The next problem would be actually tying the PLB to the side of the raft. Where are you going to tie it to? Who knows? You can’t practice on land because the raft is packed in its container and there’s no way of knowing what tie down or ropes you could use until you’re actually in the drink. Oh, and good luck tying knots with your hands inside the survival suit gloves. Will you have to strip to the waist and lean out the open door to try and get that job done? Might get just a bit cold and damp doing that. And remember if you do a shitty job you stand a pretty good chance of losing the unit when the first big wave slams into the side of the raft. Again, bad.

4.  Tie a line onto the PLB, stick the unit outside through the door, zip the door back up and hold the PLB tight against door by pulling on the line or tying it to something inside the raft. The more I think about it, this method seems like the best one so far. You could have the line already attached before you even leave home, probably a good idea no matter what method you choose, then once you get inside the raft just pull the unit out, turn it on, or turn it on just before ditching, then just poke it through the door and voila! If you start to get pounded by really heavy seas you can easily bring it back inside for safety or to check the line. It would also be easy to bring it back inside in case rescue is taking a long time and you want to turn the unit off in order to save the battery.

I can’t think of any other way of giving the unit a clear view of the sky right now. Any of you have any other ideas?

3 Replies to “Back To Survival Mode, The PLB”

  1. At least some of that should be up to the manufacturers to make design tweaks to accommodate such things, so that it wouldn’t matter what raft you or anybody else gets, or so you can turn on the PLB with minimal dexterity. Even if you had to ditch in a warmer climate, there’s still the possibility of injury that would hamper your ability to turn on a PLB, I’d think. There’s an answer somewhere, just a matter of thinking up enough crummy answers to find something that sparks a good one.

  2. Some good thoughts Colleen, especially on turning the PLB on. The more I thought about it the madder I got. I must admit that when I bought the unit I was just pleased as punch to finally have an emergency beacon that did everything I’d always wanted. I never really sat down and thought about the scenarios where I would use it. Not only would it be almost impossible to turn on while wearing gloves it would be difficult with cold numb fingers, not unusual at all in a cold weather environment.

    Unfortunately none of your ideas, or mine so far, about mounting the unit on the raft will work because I use/rent a different raft for each trip so there’s no way to modify it ahead of time. I could have my parachute rigger work on some kind of pouch that would at least secure the unit better than the thin plastic loops.

  3. Sounds like time for you to build a better mouse trap… or for someone to. Either the PLB or raft manufacturers, or both. Those are pretty serious inadequacies for such a vital piece of equipment. Though I think the PLB manufacturers could make a means to turn the dang thing on easier… something akin to those little tabs on little cheapie electronics that you have to pull out from between the battery & contact so it’ll work… if it had a ring on it you could pull it with your teeth, or potentially just your glove covered thumb if you had to, y’know?

    Free thinking ideas from someone without any experience with this sort of thing…

    Some sort of epoxy or Gorilla glue to stick the unit to the outside of the raft, but I don’t know if there is any sort of adhesive one could use in a potentially harsh environment, and with compromised dexterity.

    Really strong magnets, which could already be glued on the unit, but magnets & electronic things don’t typically get along, so I’m sure that’s out.

    Some kinda pouch on the raft that will allow the antenna & GPS to do their thing.

    Best scenario of course would be to never need it, but I reckon there’ll about always be someone that does need it, so it is worth giving serious thought to.

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