Safety Alert

Emergency call outs and the subsequent rescues of sea kayakers occur with reasonably frequency. In 2019, from January to June there were in excess of a dozen.

Some of the sea kayakers were carrying Personal Locator Beacons (PLB’s). These are increasing in popularity due to them being small and portable, very effective in sending out a call for help and precicely pinpointing your location to the emergency services. With an up front cost of about £200, no subscription required and a lifetime of around 7 years they are a good long term investment.

Having been around for a few years now they have proven their ability to effect quick and efficient rescue’s even in the remote locations that sea kayakers often find themselves in. 

Some of the sea kayaker involved incidents recorded in early 2019, where PLB’s were activated are:

MONTH   LOCATION INCIDENT PLB activation to rescue time
January Cornwall Individual paddling alone, capsized and dislocated shoulder      Falmouth Lifeboat: 30 minutes
The paddler commented: I was praised by the crew as the PLB gave them my 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  East coast of Scotland  Two ski’s, one unable to remount due to conditions and cold Kinghorn Lifeboat: 40 minutes
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  Thurso  Lone paddler stranded on rocks, boat adrift  Thurso Lifeboat: 30 minutes
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 by the user. It transmits a digital SOS signal on the 406 MHz frequency. As well as your GPS location it sends a unique 15-digit identification number. This is picked up by the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system.

When the Coastguard receives a message that you are in trouble they will access your beacon registration. This will tell them who the device belongs to and any additional emergency contact information that you have submitted when registering the device.  They will then call out the relevant Search and Rescue Service.

The rescue team will then pinpoint your location using your PLB's:

  • 121.5 MHz homing signal.
  • Automatic identification system (AIS) location signal (on newer PLBs for boaters).
  • Strobe light.

This enables the Search and rescue services to pinpoint your exact location without any further description and reach the scene quickly. 

Because PLB’s work using satellites your PLB must have a clear line of vision to the sky. This means that it must be kept above the water. It is worth considering how to attach it to your buoyancy aid when it is operating so as to free up your hands.

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

What to consider when buying a PLB?

There are several PLB’s available on the market. Some things to consider when choosing one are:

  • Is it GPS enabled.
  • Does it transmit a homing signal on VHF (all PLB’s also transmit on 121.5mhz).
  • Is it classified as being for Maritime use as these will be waterproof.
  • Is it able to float.
  • Can it be attached to you or your buoyancy aid.
  • Is it easy to use when in the water and with cold hands.
  • Can it be used one handed if you are in the water, freeing up your other hand.


Once you have bought your PLB you need to register it. This is done by visiting the Government web site https://www.gov.uk/maritime-safety-weather-and-navigation/register-406-mhz-beacons

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.