In the first half of 2019 there were over a dozen emergency callouts and rescues of sea paddlers. They demonstrate the need to have a means of calling for help to hand.

Recent incidents have often involved experienced paddlers who did not expect to get into trouble. Typically they were:

  • In environments or conditions they felt familiar with
  • Paddling alone or in a small group
  • Carrying basic emergency equipment or clothing
  • Subject to an unforeseen incident or had underestimated the conditions
  • As a minimum carried a mobile phone in a water proof case as a means of communication.

Some of these paddlers had invested in Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s). 

These are becoming far more popular given their ease to carry, effectiveness in calling for help and pinpoint satellite location. At a cost of around £200 with no further ongoing charges they last, typically, between 7 years making them a good long term investment.

They have proven their success in effecting quick and efficient rescue’s even in remote locations. 

Some of the incidents recorded in 2019 where PLB’s were activated were:

  • January in Cornwall. Individual paddling alone, capsized and dislocated shoulder. Falmouth Lifeboat rescued 30 minutes after PLB activation. The paddler commented: 'I was praised by the crew as the PLB gave them the exact location where I was and they were able to track me. Furthermore staying with kayak and wearing the right clothing, having and doing the right things saved my life.'
  • March on the East coast of Scotland. Two ski’s, one unable to remount due to conditions and cold. Kinghorn Lifeboat rescued 40 minutes after PLB activation. Jonathan Mustard, Senior Maritime Operations Officer for HM Coastguard said: ‘This is a great example of how a Personal Locator Beacon, when properly used and registered, can save a person’s life. These kayakers ensured that, should they get into difficulty whilst out at sea, they had the right equipment to give them the best chance of being located and rescued.'
  • April at Thurso. Lone paddler stranded on rocks, boat adrift. Thurso Lifeboat rescued 30 minutes after PLB activation. RNLI Coxswain Dougie Munro said ‘This is a great example of the importance of carrying a means for calling for help, such as a PLB. Because of the kayaker’s preparations, the locator beacon directed us straight to him. He was exhausted and suffering the effects of being in the cold water. Time was important; any delay in finding him might have led to a different outcome’.

How do they work?

A PLB is manually activated and transmits a distress alert directly to the Coastguard via satellites on the 406MHz frequency. The Coastguard then uses this to call out the relevant Search and Rescue Service. This enables the rescue services to pinpoint your exact location without any further description and reach the scene quickly. 

Because PLB’s work on satellites, once activated, your PLB must have a clear line of “vision” to the sky. This means that it must be kept above the water, so considering how to attach it to your buoyancy aid in an operating position is good idea to free up your hands. It will not work if you have overhead obstructions such as being in a cave. 

They transmit for 24 hours plus and can be used where there is no mobile phone signal. 

What to look for when buying a PLB

There are many PLB’s on the market. Look for the ones that are:

  • GPS enabled
  • Transmit a homing signal on VHF (all PLB’s also transmit on 121.5mhz)
  • Classified as being for Maritime use as these will be waterproof
  • Able to float but can also be attached to you or your buoyancy aid 
  • Easy to use if you are in the water
  • Can be used one handed if you are in the water, freeing up your other hand


Once you have bought your PLB there is no subscription fee and the battery can last around 7 years. You need to register your PLB with the Coastguard (MCA). This can be done by visiting the UK Government Beacon Registration web site.  It currently takes many months for them to process your registration, however your device will work wether it is registered or not.

Other communication and signalling devices

There are many different communication and signalling devices designed for use at sea. It is important that you choose the right one for you and the environment you paddle in. We have a detailed look at the range of devices available in Calling for help - Devices for sea kayakers.

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By Philip Clegg

Approaching two decades of working in the sea kayaking industry, Phil can be found on a daily basis coaching and paddling on the coastline of Anglesey. That’s when he’s not travelling the world expeditioning, coaching and testing kit.