Deck the Hulls: EPIRB

Post co-authored by Michael Baron, USCG Recreational Boating Safety Specialist.

Looking for the perfect gift for the boater on your holiday list? The holiday season is a perfect time to arm your friends and family with safe boating essentials. No matter what the time or temperature, it is always important to encourage your loved ones to “boat responsibly.” Over the next two weeks the Compass will feature gift-giving ideas that every boating enthusiast will love, but more importantly will keep them safe.


When activated, a properly registered EPIRB sends an electronic signal that will notify the Coast Guard of a distress situation. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Robert Brazzell.

One of the most valuable gifts you can give the boater on your holiday list is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), which is a specialized radio transmitter that acts as a rescue beacon when its user is in grave or imminent danger.

When a boater is in distress and their EPIRB is activated, a distress signal with a code unique to the beacon is transmitted and picked up by a worldwide distress system that multiplies the signal through a network of “listening” search-and-rescue satellites.

When a satellite picks up an EPIRB’s signal it calculates an accurate position of the distress and checks its unique identification code against the EPIRB registration database, containing the vessel’s owner and contact information. With this accurate position and owner information, the distress alert is then routed to the responsible Coast Guard command center or International Rescue Coordination Center.

The process is simple enough, but it can be confusing for a buyer to decide what kind of EPIRB to buy because there are different categories to buy from: Category 1 and Category 2.

A Category 1 EPIRB will automatically deploy and release itself after a hydrostatic release unit cuts the EPIRB free and will activate its emergency signal only after a vessel sinks below the surface. A Category 2 EPIRB must be manually released and activated by a crewmember. If a Category 2 EPIRB is purchased, it is recommended to stow it in close proximity to the steering station for immediate access should the boater find themselves in imminent distress.


Each beacon has a unique code, and when activated, will transmit a signal that is picked up by a worldwide distress system. This signal is then multiplied through a network of search-and-rescue satellites.

Another thing to consider when purchasing an EPIRB is what type of boat it will be used on. A Category 1 EPIRB should be purchased if there is room for it to be mounted in a position where it can float free for automatic deployment when the vessel sinks or capsizes. If that’s not possible, a Category 2 EPIRB that requires manual activation will be the best option.

Once your favorite boater has unwrapped this great gift and thanked you for possibly saving their life, there is one more step to gifting an EPIRB – don’t forget to register it! Proper registration is key, because without registering emergency responders will not have the accurate information of who needs help and what rescuers should prepare for.

When a beacon is unregistered or improperly registered, responders must spend valuable time in the early minutes of an emergency to obtain critical data about a boat’s owner, home port, emergency contacts and other information, even before a satellite gets a fix on a beacon’s location. When a beacon is properly registered all that information is already available to responders, saving precious time. You can register your new EPIRB at the Beacon Registration Database or by calling 1-888-212-SAVE.

The U.S. Coast Guard asks all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!”