Depending on where you paddle, you may need to carry both short and long-range signals. If someone is in range to respond to them, short-range signals can often bring a quick response. Long-range signals can reach people who are not in your immediate area, but it may take time for someone to respond to them.
It's a good idea to carry distress signals on your person, in case you get separated from your boat, but don't carry anything that compromises your mobility or the buoyancy of your PFD.
Whistles are easier to hear (and sustain) than shouting. A whistle can also prevent emergencies by keeping paddlers from becoming separated. They fulfill the Canada Coast Guard requirement for “a sound-signalling device or a sound-signalling appliance.”
Flares that come packed in their own launch tubes (about the size of a big felt marker) are popular because they fit in PFD pockets. Flare pistols or pens that must be loaded before use are not suitable for on-water signalling, as a paddler's hands are usually occupied during an emergency. Marine flares are nominally waterproof, but should still be kept dry to ensure they will work when needed. They are marked with a date of manufacture or with an expiry date. They usually expire after four years, and their performance is not guaranteed once expired. Check the dates at the start of the season, and replace them as needed.
Smoke Signals emit clouds of brightly coloured smoke are usually more visible in bright daylight than flares.
Signal Mirrors are small devices reflect sunlight to create flashes that can be aimed towards ships or aircraft.
VHF Radios use signals that, unlike cell or satellite phone calls, can be picked up by the Coast Guard, and any vessel that's in range monitoring channel 16 (the emergency channel). This may result in quick assistance. In many areas with heavy marine travel, the Coast Guard operates elevated repeater stations that allow you to contact them over great distances even with a handheld VHF. In remote, less travelled waters, or in areas blocked by high land, establishing contact may not be possible. These radios let you talk in real time, and allow two-way communication, so you can specify the nature of your emergency, get advice, and know that your call has been heard.
Radios rated for underwater depth and duration are submersibly waterproof. Without this rating they are generally only splashproof, and need to be protected with a bag or box. Without a bag blocking the controls, submersible radios are easier to operate. To prevent corrosion, rinse them thoroughly with fresh water after use around salt water. In Canada, an operator's certificate is required to transmit with a VHF.
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) broadcast distress signals directly to government SAR satellites, so their coverage is almost world-wide. Each has a unique coded signal, so if you've registered it properly, SAR personnel will know the type of vessel they are looking for. Beacons are simple to activate, making them useful for stressed or injured users in need of help. But they don't allow you to specify a degree or type of emergency. Nor do they let you know if your signal was received. Some models feature a built-in GPS receiver. It allows the PLB to transmit a precise location along with a distress signal, to speed the arrival of rescue.
Satellite Messengers broadcast to commercial satellites rather than government SAR satellites. You pay ongoing subscription fees, as you would with cell or satellite phones. Distress signals don't go directly to SAR agencies, they're routed to the satellite messenger's call centre, who then contacts the appropriate SAR service. The range of coverage is more limited than PLBs, particularly in remote parts of the world. But they offer communications options that PLBs don't: you can email to advise of your location, or you can send an email to designated people in situations where you need to be bailed out, but don't need to instigate a full emergency response. You can also activate a tracking feature that updates your location in real time.
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