Here at Sea Kayak Paddler we strongly encourage all sea kayakers to take at least one means of calling for help with them when sea kayaking. More preferably, two or even three as they all have different benefits for different situations, and they are all able to fail.

It wasn’t that long ago there was only one choice for your average sea kayaker, pyrotechnic flares. While these are still available they are so prone to failure and so likely to injure the user we don’t particularly recommend them any more, for the average sea kayaker.

Fortunately the options for todays sea kayakers are definitely more reliable and thankfully more user friendly. The choice is however greater with different devices operating in different ways on different systems. It’s important that you know what is most suitable for you, your location and your budget. To be able to choose the right device for your needs we need to know a few more details about them. 

 

A couple things to know

GMDSS: Global Maritime Distress Signalling System. This is the internationally recognised way of calling for help when at sea. If you want your message to get to the Coastguard it may be best to choose a device recognised under the scheme.

The final mile: Calling for help may not be enough, whoever is looking for you will also need to be able to locate you. Search and Rescue services that have radar and other specialist equipment may not need anything other than the initial distress alert, but often locating a kayaker in need of help in the final mile can be difficult. A device that pinpoints your location can be very useful.

Handheld VHF Radio

Handheld VHF Radio
  • Communicates using radio waves.
  • Transmits a voice message to all shore stations and vessels in range.
  • Range varies hugely mainly dependent on radio watts, antenna height and line of sight. About 5 miles handheld to handheld and about 20 miles to a coastguard station or repeater.
  • Making a distress call is done by transmitting a mayday voice message on channel 16.
  • Cost ≈ £100
  • Requires a Ship Portable Radio Licence which is free in the UK if requested online. You can apply for one here.
  • GMDSS approved. 

+ Waterproof models available.
- Can be tested by user
- Battery life not great

 Radio with Digital Selective Calling

Radio with Digital Selective Calling
  • Communicates using radio waves.
  • Transmitts a DSC distress alert and your location to all shore stations and vessels in range.
  • Range is 25% further than standard VHF.
  • Distress alert is operated with a 10 second press of a button under a cover flap and holding with a clear view of the sky. Coastguard will respond with a voice reply.
  • Cost ≈ £200
  • Requires a Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number, which comes with the radio licence.
  • GMDSS approved. 

 

+ Waterproof models available.
- Takes a while to acquire location once turned on.
- Distress alert can’t be tested by user.

Personal Locator Beacon

Personal Locator Beacon 200
  • Communicates using satellites.
  • Transmits a distress signal to the relevant maritime rescue coordination centre.
  • Range is worldwide.
  • Distress alert operated by extending an arial, pressing a button under a cover flap for 10 seconds and holding with a clear view of the sky.
  • Cost ≈ £200
  • Must be registered. This is free in the UK and can be done here.
  • GMDSS approved.

+ Battery last about 7 years.
+ Waterproof
- Battery can be tested by user but signal can’t.

Simple Phone

simple phone 200
  • Communicates using 2+3G mobile network.
  • Transmits a voice or text message with anyone you have the number for ie shore contact, taxi, nearby friend.
  • Range is up to 18 nmiles to the nearest arial, and then worldwide. Mobile coverage is generally poor around the UK coast, although coverage for voice calls is usually better than data.
  • Distress call involves unlocking, dialling 999 and asking for the Coastguard.
  • Cost ≈ £20 + £10 PAYG credit.
  • Not GMDSS approved

+ Can be tested by user.
+ Battery life is better than a smart phone.
+ Waterproof models available 
- You need to make a call every few months to keep the credit active.

Smart Phone

smartphone
  • Communicates using 2,3+4G mobile network, and receives GPS signals.
  • Transmits voice or text message.
  • Range is up to 18 nmiles to the nearest transmitter, and then worldwide. Mobile coverage is generally poor around the UK coast, although coverage for voice calls is usually better than data.
  • Distress call can be made on a locked phone using the touch screen. RYA’s Safetrx app will automatically send a text message to your emergency contact if you overrun your ETA.
  • Not GMDSS approved but HM Coast Guard have adopted the RYA SafeTrx app.

+ Can be tested by user.
+ You can set up emergency location sharing with smart phones. This transmits an emergency message and location with the touch of a button on some phones.
- A touch screen can be unusable when wet, even in a waterproof case.
- Battery life isn’t great.

Satellite Phone

sat phone
  • Communicates using satellites.
  • Transmits voice or text message.
  • Range: Iridium are global. Globalstar aren’t global but work well in UK. Inmarsat and Thuraya also provide satellite phones but their satellites have poor reception in the UK.
  • Distress call can’t be made on 999. You need to know your local Coastguard number.
  • Cost ≈ Iridium phone £1000, annual fee £500. Globalstar phone £500, annual fee £100.
  • Not GMDSS approved.

+ Can be tested by user.
- They generally aren’t waterproof.
- They are bulky to use in a waterproof case.

Tracker

tracker
  • Communicates using either satellites or the mobile phone network.
  • Transmits text messages.
  • Range may be global if it uses a satellite communications system or national if it uses a mobile phone network.
  • Operation of distress alert is usual lifting a flap and pressing a button for 10 seconds.
  • Cost ≈ £100 for mobile or £250 for satellite tracker + £150 annual contract.
  • Not GMDSS approved.

+ They often have functions to allow tracking by friends and monitoring from a website.
+ Basic messaging is available on some models.
- SOS functions do not transmit directly to maritime rescue services, so rescue can take longer.
- Be aware that some trackers have no SOS function.
- Can test tracking function but not distress alert.

Pyrotechnic Flares

flares
  • Communicates using a visual signal that needs to be seen and understood.
  • Emmits a red parachute rocket as distress signal or orange smoke or red candle to pinpoint.
  • Range varies with type; red parachute rocket up to 28 nmiles, red candle up to 5 nmiles and orange smoke up to 3 nmiles.
  • Operation usually involves removing a cap and pulling a trigger.
  • Cost ≈ £20-50
  • Not GMDSS approved.

 

+ Can be useful to pinpoint your location when you see help arriving.
+/- Waterproof but supposed to be kept dry.
- Can get very hot when operated, best used with gloves.
- Expires after 3 years.
- Not advised as a primary means of calling for help (useful in the ‘final mile’).
- Can’t be tested by user.

Electronic Visual Distress Signals

evds
  • Communicates using a visual flashing SOS signal.
  • Emmits dual colour flashing lights plus a near infrared component for detection by night-vision goggles.
  • Range up to seven miles depending upon the height above the sea of the observer and signaller.
  • Operation involves the press of a button and holding the device upright.
  • Costs ≈ £90
  • Not GMDSS approved.

 

+ Useful to pinpoint your location when you see help arriving.
+ Waterproof models available
+ Can be tested by user.
- Can be confused with background lights..
- Not advised as a primary means of calling for help (useful in the ‘final mile’).
- Fairly new so not as ‘tested’ in real situations.

 

 

philip clegg profile 2

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.