Personal Locator Beacons

Sometimes when conditions are good, there are a lot of people out on the water, other times when its marginal, there can be no-one. I have a large 11 m2 sail, that can get me planing in as little as 8.5 kts of wind. On those days there tends to be no-one else on the water but me. So I take a Personal Locator Beacon, the Spot GPS Satellite Messenger with me, particularly when I head out to sea.

The Spot GPS Satellite Messenger

The spot messenger is quite different to an EPERB, because it lets you send messages as well as distress calls. In fact there are a number of buttons that you can use to pre-program messages, and it uses the same satellite constellation as sat phones, except it sends data instead of voice, so mobile coverage is not a problem. Personal messages can be sent via SMS to mobile phones, or via email. The email messages include a link to google maps with your location [ here is an example ].

Sending GPS tagged messages

The mobile coverage where I windsurf is getting better, but for a long time there was no coverage at all. So I used the Spot messenger to let my family know where I was and that I was OK. I also take it with me when I travel with my work to remote areas.

The messenger has five main functions, each with its own button:

  • SOS / 911: You lift this cover and press this button in the event of a life threatening or other critical emergency. The spot response centre will then notify emergency services of your GPS location and that you need assistance.

  • Help: You lift this cover and press the button in the event of a non-life threatening emergency. You can pre-program the message that goes with this and have it sent to a list of personal contacts, notifying them that you need assistance. I have mine set up to say that I am out of mobile coverage and am having car trouble, please call RACQ and let them know where I am.

  • Check-in/OK: This is the button I press to let my wife know that I am OK. It sends her an SMS and an email with my location. The email has a link to google maps, so she can see exactly where I am.

  • Custom Message: I use this custom message to let her know that I have packed up and am on my way home. Not a bad thing to do when its getting dark and I have been out all day.

  • Track Progress: This feature allows you to track your progress, but its very low resolution compared to my Garmin Foretrex GPS, and it chews through the batteries, so I don't use this feature. It would probably be of more interest to hikers.

Wearing it out on the water

Spot arm band

The spot messenger came with an elastic arm band and a little pouch that the unit slips into.

Mods to arm band

The arm band was not designed well enough to withstand the rigours of windsurfing. So I decided to make some modifications to improve it. I added an extra tongue of Velcro hooks at the end and an extra square of Velcro loops on the band. Now when I put it on, it stays where it is, and so far on the water, I haven't had any problems with it.

Setting it up and configuring the messages

Aside from purchasing the device, you pay an annual subscription for the service.

Spot website

You set-up and configure the device via the Spot website. You can have different profiles for different activities. I have one for windsurfing and one for when I am travelling. Each with different messages and contacts. You can also view and download all the GPS locations you have sent messages from.


All in all, I am very happy with this device. Its small and light, and when its on my arm I tend to forget that its there. The lithium batteries last for months, and I have tested the signal from the water and it worked just fine. My wife likes it too! Particularly when I am travelling to remote areas that don't have mobile coverage. Most of all, it gives me confidence to venture out on my own, when I otherwise wouldn't - not sure if this is actually a good or a bad thing ;)

Posted by Henry Thomas, 10 years ago on Thursday, August 19, 2010


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