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EPIRBs and What You Need in Your Ditch Bag

Boating Safety, EPIRBs and Ditch Bag

The sobering story of the missing fisherman in Florida this week brings to our attention a very uncomfortable truth: our obsession with offshore fishing and recreational boating is rife with danger. If you’re like me you love being on the water. We feel at home on the ocean. Being at the helm probably comes as natural as riding a bike or driving a car. It is easy to take for granted that when we go on the water chasing that next great bite or cruising with the family that we will return to the dock safely and soundly without incident. It is clear now more than ever that safe return is never a given. So what do you need to be better prepared when things go bad on the water?


An Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon or EPIRB is a distress radiobeacon, a tracking transmitter that is deployed during an emergency when the user or users need to be located by rescuers. EPIRBs are detected by satellites and monitored by an international network of rescue services. The goal of EPIRBs is to help rescuers find survivors within the first 24 hours following an incident. This 24-hour period is known as the “Golden Day” as it is the time in which the majority of incident survivors can be saved.

EPIRBs employ a strobe light as well to assist in locating those stranded. In addition to the radio signal, some EPIRBs have a built-in GPS receiver to broadcast an exact location to responders. All EPIRBs can direct rescuers to within a few hundred yards of the beacon’s location. Some EPIRBs require the user register personal information, emergency contacts and vessel information.

Personal EPIRBs can be worn by an individual and deployed manually in case of emergency. Others deploy manually when submerged in water. Other EPIRBs are mounted to the boat itself and automatically transmit if the boat sinks. EPIRBs typically have an internal battery with a lifespan of 5 to 6 years. An EPIRB could possibly be the single most important piece of equipment to ensure your survival in a marine disaster. Many popular EPIRBs are produced by a company called ACR.


A ditch bag is essentially an abandon ship bag and should contain not only key items necessary to signal for help but also supplies necessary to ensure survival while waiting for help to arrive. Your ditch bag should not just be any bag but should be specifically designed to be deployed in a marine emergency. Some things to look for in a ditch bag are: positive flotation so the bag has buoyancy when it enters the water, water resistance so the contents of the bag stay dry and the bag itself remains afloat, visibility in the form of bright yellow or orange color (think life preserver colors) and reflective trim or tape, carry straps and tethers so that the bag can easily be loaded into a life raft or tethered to a person who has had to enter the water. The ditch bag should be of sufficient size in order to house all the supplies necessary for the crew. ACR produces ditch bags in different sizes. Other affordable options are available from brands such as Ozark Trail.

Ditch Bag Contents

As we said the ditch bag should contain supplies elemental to survival and rescue. It should house the EPIRB once the crew is separated from the boat. It should also contain flares and/or a rescue mirror, dye markers, signal lights or strobes. SOLAS-grade flares can be seen for the greatest distance. A waterproof handheld VHF radio can be essential for radioing for help and can be used if the boat’s VHF becomes inoperable or you have to leave the boat. A handheld GPS unit can be used to help transmit your position to rescuers. Water rations are essential for survival and you should have enough to support your entire crew for a period of several days. Food rations are next in importance and should ensure sufficient caloric intake. Other important items to include are a First Aid kit and a knife.


File a float plan, let friends and family know where you plan to travel and when you should be expected to return or at least be back in contact range. Stay on top of maintenance. A large body of water is no place to have a mechanical issue. Two is better than one, twin engine (or more) boats are less likely to be stranded by a mechanical issue. Know the weather and keep an eye on changing conditions.

Be Prepared

Take the steps necessary to ensure you are prepared if things go south on the water. Your life and the lives of your crew are worth the investment. If you own a boat you can afford the safety gear to help you get through an on-the-water crisis.

This blog was written by Brad Ciociola, owner of Carolina Boat and Yacht Brokers. For more information about CBYB please visit

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