EPIRB vs Sat Phone

I’ll start this article off with a recent maritime rescue that occurred in one of the world’s most remote places.

William had sailed past Point Nemo just a few days before, the remotest point from any emerging land on our planet. He was closer to Antarctica than to South America where he was headed in his quest to circumnavigate the globe solo, non-stop by the three great capes in the Global Solo Challenge.

Sail-World: Global Solo Challenge

MacBrien had both an EPIRB and satellite phone and was able to send his distress signal with the EPIRB and then contact relatives to keep them up to date with the situation.

In my 10 years of working at sea, there was always an EPIRB and sat phone on board. Both are vital parts of safety protocol and when used in combination can have a life-saving outcome.

In short, you absolutely need an EPIRB! And it is certainly worth having a sat phone on your boat.

Comparative Analysis

How an EPIRB is designed to work by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency which is monitored by satellites. This signal provides search and rescue teams with your location.

On the other hand, satellite phones allow for two-way communication at sea and almost anywhere in the world.

Even the best EPIRBs are generally more affordable because they don’t require a subscription, while sat phones incur higher operational costs but offer the ability to convey detailed information in an emergency.

In this analysis, you’ll learn about the specific differences across various factors that are critical to their performance and suitability for emergencies.

EPIRBs are designed for one primary function: to send a distress signal directly to search and rescue satellites. They connect with the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system, ensuring your signal is relayed worldwide.

Satellite phones, on the other hand, depend on communication satellites which may have varying degrees of coverage and connection stability. The main networks are Iridium, Inmarsat, and Globalstar.

Starlink is entering the space and will provide considerable competition to the traditional constellations.

I’d suggest reading further into each to find out which works for you.

Inmarsat vs Iridium
Globalstar vs Inmarsat
Globalstar vs Iridium

Your EPIRB is designed to be rugged and requires minimal maintenance, making it exceptionally reliable in harsh conditions. There is periodic testing needed until its battery needs replacement, usually after several years.

Satellite phones require regular charging and care, and in extreme environments, they may be more susceptible to damage or failure without proper protection.

When you activate an EPIRB, it sends an immediate distress signal with your location to rescue authorities. It’s designed for life-threatening scenarios where you need direct emergency response.

Using a satellite phone, you can communicate the nature of your emergency in detail to responders, but it assumes you are able to make a call and speak clearly about your needs and location.

EPIRBs typically involve a higher initial cost but no subscription fees, making them more economical over time for one-off purchases.

Satellite phones may appear more affordable initially, but require ongoing subscription fees and call charges, which can add up, especially with frequent or long-duration use.

Usage Scenarios

When considering safety devices for communication and location, your choice between a Satellite Phone and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) depends largely on the context in which you’ll use them.

A satellite phone provides a direct link to the outside world for these areas, facilitating not just emergency calls but also everyday communication.

Meanwhile, an EPIRB remains strictly an emergency device, used to alert authorities in life-threatening situations, signaling through a network of satellites to a rescue coordination center.

Regulatory Considerations

When equipping your vessel with safety devices, understanding the regulatory framework is crucial.

Regulatory bodies may have specific mandates regarding the use of EPIRBs and satellite phones.

Under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), certain classes of vessels are required to carry EPIRBs to ensure a standardized approach to maritime safety.

EPIRBs, which are registered to the vessel, emit a distress signal that is monitored internationally by the Cospas-Sarsat satellite system, enabling a coordinated search and rescue effort.

Local maritime authorities may impose additional requirements for safety equipment.

In some regions, carrying a satellite phone may complement the use of an EPIRB but cannot replace it according to legal requirements.

Ensure your equipment is in line with the specific mandates of your country’s maritime organization to maintain compliance and safety standards.

Technological Advancements

In the realm of emergency location, EPIRBs remain a reliable staple. However, their function has been boosted by integration with global satellite networks, which has dramatically improved the speed of relaying distress signals.

Satellite phones have also progressed, now offering capabilities such as GPS location sharing and improved water resistance.

Their benefits include the ability to communicate directly with rescuers, provide detailed accounts of your situation, and receive confirmation that help has been dispatched.

FeatureEPIRBSatellite Phone
Signal TypeAutomatic and manual distress signalManual voice or text communication
GPS IntegrationYesYes, with the addition of sharing precise coordinates
Water ResistanceWaterproof and floatsSome models are waterproof and float
ConnectivityNo two-way communicationTwo-way communication is possible

Frequently Asked

EPIRBs are designed specifically for emergencies, broadcasting a distress signal with location data to search and rescue services. They are low-maintenance and have a long battery life. Unlike sat phones EPIRBs don’t offer the ability to communicate bi-directionally.

Maintenance costs for an EPIRB are typically lower since they do not require ongoing subscription fees. Once registered, most EPIRBs only need a battery replacement every 5-10 years. Satellite phones, however, involve monthly or yearly service fees, plus the costs of calls made.

A PLB is more suitable for individuals in remote areas where immediate rescue may be necessary. They are compact, designed for personal use, and directly alert search and rescue without the need for voice communication, making them ideal when you cannot risk an interrupted signal.

Garmin Inreach devices offer a blend of features, including two-way messaging, location sharing, and SOS functions. They provide a viable alternative in many scenarios but require a subscription for full functionality.

I would advise against using an Inreach as your primary emergency signal device. Traditional EPIRBs have a direct link to search and rescue satellites.

EPIRBs solely signal for help and provide location information to rescue coordination centers. Satellite messengers, on the other hand, allow for two-way communication, enabling you to receive confirmations and updates but they typically involve a subscription model for their services.

In extremely remote or harsh conditions, an EPIRB’s dedicated functionality and strong signal designed to penetrate such environments often make it more reliable than a satellite phone.

The satellite phone may struggle with consistent signal quality and require a clear view of the sky to operate effectively.

I’m the founder and chief editor here at Sailing Savvy. I spent a decade working as a professional mariner and currently, I mix those experiences with digital publishing. Welcome, and I hope that we can be the hub you need for safe passage.