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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Story graphic
A beacon to light the way. © Darryl Beers
A beacon to light the way. © Darryl Beers

June 1997

Keep in touch

Safety and communications on the water is no accident.


William G. Engfer

Microchip technology offers boaters a host of tools to find a location, plot a course and call for help. The right combination of navigation and communications equipment for your boat depends on when and where you travel. Those who plan to be on water at night can use electronics to help "see" where they are and where they are headed. Those who cruise the Great Lakes and the big rivers need to contend with bigger boats and commercial traffic. You need to balance what you ought to carry against what you can afford.

The acronyms of navigation equipment – GPS, DGPS, LORAN, EPIRB and others – are becoming commonplace in the boater's vocabulary. GPS, or Global Positioning Systems, are electronic receivers that can accurately pinpoint your location worldwide. The devices triangulate positions by receiving signal beacons from satellites. Once the navigator enters the GPS location of known landmarks, the GPS system notes the location and speed to compute the distance, direction and time it will take to reach each "waypoint" on the course. Most GPS units can store from 100-1,000 different waypoints. You can use the device to find a launch site, a pier or even a favorite fishing hole.

DGPS or Differential Geographic Positioning Systems are even more accurate – they read signals from Coast Guard beacons on land in addition to satellite information and can pinpoint locations to within five to ten meters. GPS and DGPS systems range in price from $200-$800. The fancier models show digital displays of maps and have electronic compasses. Bigger isn't necessarily better: You might find all the features you want in a small hand-held unit as compared to a larger mounted system.

LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation) systems are valuable, but less popular these days. They provide accurate longitude and latitude readings the skipper must interpret on navigational charts to plot a course.

An EPIRB is a cross between a navigational and a communications tool. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons send out distress signals that can be picked up by satellites if your boat is out of range of cellular phones and VHF marine radios. They transmit an electronic blip to aircraft, satellites, rescue vessels and land stations monitoring emergency frequencies. These signals are relayed to emergency responders who can compute a "fix" to find boats in trouble. Usually only ocean-going vessels and boaters who travel to remote locations carry such equipment.

Two other communications tools are much more common and practical for recreational boaters. Cellular phones offer convenience and a sense of security on water. Signals travel very well over water and most areas of Wisconsin are covered by cell phone service. VHF communicating radios, often called "marine band' radios, keep boaters in contact with other boats they can see. These radios are an excellent choice for boaters on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, where many vessels use them and the Coast Guard monitors emergency frequencies. The height and length of the radio antenna is as important as power in determining the distance over which communications will be understood.

What equipment should you select? Shop around and pick up copies of marine supply trade magazines with product reviews and helpful essays on the advantages and limits of various features.

What is the minimum equipment you should keep on your boat? I recommend at least the following safety and communications gear.
GEAR COST
one set of day and night time flares$28.00
a boat horn that works on compressed gas canisters5.00
flashlight 2.00
screwdriver1.00
pliers1.50
life jackets for every passenger, cushions, anchors, paddles, mooring ropes, tow rope, boat bumpers and running lights150.00
TOTAL$187.50

Why the simple tools like a screwdriver and pliers? You might be surprised how many on-water problems can be repaired with these basic tools. Boats that spend most of their time in storage can develop mechanical problems after only a few hours use.

If you want to invest a little more over time, add a good spotlight to help you see at night, a larger tool kit and perhaps some of the more elaborate communications and safety devices.

Prepare yourself! Take a boating safety course to learn the rules of the water and how to handle the equipment discussed here. The vital link in every safe outing is a boat captain who is confident and knowledgeable in an emergency.

William G Engfer administers DNR's boating law and education programs.