Best personal locator beacons and AIS units: 12 top options for boating

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If you head offshore or participate in competitive sailing then you’ll need to consider a PLB and/or an AIS beacon. Tech Editor and marine safety gear and comms specialist, Fox Morgan has tested an array of the current beacons on the market to help you decide what’s the best one for you.

Locating a crew member who’s fallen overboard in anything other than the most benign of conditions is a huge and frankly scary challenge for those onboard.

Your odds, as a person overboard being recovered are less than 50:50 according to the latest MAIB report stats. Add a lifejacket and your odds of being found are still marginally over 50:50 but you at least might survive long enough to be rescued. That’s if your lifejacket has a sprayhood, light and reflectors. If you’ve been thrown a danbuoy or johnbuoy MOB marker then you have a slightly higher chance of being seen. But when you’re alone in mountainous seas feeling very small and insignificant, there’s a couple of pieces of tech that will up your odds of being found to over 90%. 

This is where a personal locator beacon can be a genuine life saver.

You have two choices: an AIS type beacon which when activated shows up as a circle with a cross on any AIS radar screen of nearby vessels (within a 1 or 2 mile range) and allows any vessel that can see this signal to home in on it locally. Some handheld AIS radio devices can also help target a MOB signal too. – Icom M94DE VHF Marine Radio
You could use a personal AIS beacon from a liferaft to assist in local SAR efforts where small craft are trying to locate you as part of a coordinated effort. This is how Kirsten Neufshafer found Tapio in his liferaft when his boat sank rapidly in the Golden Globe race 2022.

There’s also the PLB which communicates with overhead satellites in the same was as a ships EPIRB (electronic position indicating radio beacon) and works on a  frequency picked up by satellites alerting search and rescue teams ashore. ( via a network of control centres). This type of device does NOT give a localised AIS signal that a small vessel could pick up.  The battery life is a little less than a ships EPIRB but essentially it does the same thing, just in a very small device. You might use a PLB of this type to signal a mayday situation, such as from a grab bag or life raft and you might not necessarily be a person overboard to use this.

The best personal locator beacons available right now

N.B. Make sure to check each product is registered for your location before buying.

Ocean Signal PLB3

Reasons to Buy: A single device that covers both AIS and satellite location beacons, only one battery to replace when the time comes for replacement, can be semi-automatically activated by a lifejacket inflation

Reasons to Avoid: At the top end of the price range for PLBs, quite large and may be a struggle to fit inside some lifejackets

Specifications: 406hz satellite radio beacon | AIS radio beacon | return link service | near field communication to battery check and device status | Size 20 x 3.6 x 3cm | Weight 190g | Operational Life 24hrs at -20ºC

This is where I throw everything I just said above on its head and say, actually, this beacon is BOTH an AIS and  PLB in one. It has satellite radio frequency alerting for rescue centre and shore based SAR control and it has a localised AIS radio beacon that can be picked up by any small (or large) vessel with AIS receiving capability, which is most boats these days who venture offshore.

It is the first beacon to combine both PLB and AIS units in one. It is something people have been asking for since small wearable beacons were created.
Now a little reality check, the beacon is not small. Yes it fits in the hand and by SHIPS epirb standards it’s small, but it’s essentially the MOB1 and the PLB1 combined if you stacked one atop the other. It creates a longish stick style of beacon.

It can be set to auto activate with lifejacket inflation with an arming plate that pops off, and after hands-on testing we can confirm that this does fit into the majority of offshore lifejackets.

But buyer beware, this is quite noticeable within a 170n lifejacket. You will feel it stiffens up one side of a lifejacket considerably. It’s also a bit big/long to fit into a pocket.

The auto-arming procedure is quite fiddly. If you are at all unsure, then I highly recommend taking this to a reputable lifejacket service centre or ocean signal office and getting the experts to show you how it’s armed when fitted to the bladder of your lifejacket. If you have to frequently inflate your lifejackets for safety protocols and inflation testing then it might be a bit of a faff. I have one fitted to my own Spinlock Deckvest 6D (it’s a squeeze) but I’ve familiarised myself with the unit and plan to manually activate it should I need to.

Read our review of the PLB3 here


ACR ResQLink View

Also see our head to head comparison review of the current ReturnLink Service enabled Personal locator Beacons available from ACR and McMurdo

Reasons to Buy: A smooth easy to operate PLB, return link service, comes with an array of methods of attachment to a lifejacket

Reasons to Avoid: the casing feels like it might be less robust compared to other ruggesdised competitors

Specifications: 406hz satellite radio signal | return link service | 28hr battery life when activated | strobe light | weight 148g | 11.48 cm (L) x 5.16 cm (W) x 3.78 cm (D)

This personal locator beacon, unusually, incorporates a small LCD screen which fundamentally improves the user experience. The return link service pings back a confirmation that your

The ACR reQLink View works in the same was as the ACR 400 unit with the aerial mounted in circumpherence around the body of the unit. SLide the end of the antenna out of the little slot on the side and then rotate it manually around using the hinged based. This reveals the activation button.

With the unit being mounted inside a lifejacket for example, it is possible for the aerial to be pushed loose of its holder and given the style of the aerial wrap around, stowing this in a pouch can be fiddly to extract in an emergency. The clear housing does make it easy to inspect though to check for any water ingress.

Buy from: West Marine


ACR ResQLink 400

Reasons to buy: buoyant, good value, easy to use

Reasons to avoid: difficult to use this with a pouch as the aerial is wrapped around the outside, will not alert nearby vessels using AIS

Specifications:  dimensions 11.48 X 5.16 X 3.78cm, Weight 144g, Battery Replacement: After 5 years or emergency use, whichever is first., battery life in use: 24+ hours. Waterproof: 5 Metres @ 1 hour | 10m @ 10 minutes..

The ACR ResQLink 400 is a simple unit with fewer bells or whistles than the return link model we have featured. It still activates an emergency response by satellite signal when activated. The aerial wraps around the unit externally on this so deployment is simple. Slide out the aerial tab from the slot on the side and then rotate it on the built in hinge. This exposes the activation button which is at all other times protected behind a piece of trim attached tothe aerial.

I like this simple way of opening up the aerial, but the downside s that it does make keeping the unit in a neoprene pocket or protective case a bit of a faff if you need to deploy it. The clear casing allows the user to see inside at the electrical gubbins inside. You’ll also be able to see if there’s any accidental water ingress too. So it’s very easy to inspect when periodically testing it.

Buy it now on Amazon


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McMurdo Fastfind ReturnLink Personal Locator Beacon with RLS

Reasons to Buy: reassuringly ruggesdised outer casing, Return link service, easily fits into a pocket or lifejacket, has lots of methods for attachment included in the box, plus a spare top cap.

Reasons to Avoid: some may not like the fusible top cap that is a single use plastic item, it doesn’t have any built in floatation. It isn’t an AIS unit so nearby, non SAR vessels won’t see the signal from this.

Specifications: dimensions 36 x 50 x 112 mm (1.42 x 1.97 x 4.41 in) | Weight 164g (5.9 oz) | return link service | transmit duration > 24 hours @ -20 °C

The FastFind is a reassuringly sturdy unit. It feels like a quality bit of kit in the hand, the rubberised sections make it easy to grip. It comes with a wide array of alternative fitment options to fasten this to your life jacket or onto a belt or harness, plus it comes with a neoprene belt pouch. Activating it is quite simple, pull up a small lever and pull hard. This breaks a tab inside and allows the top cap to be removed. The aerial unwinds to stand vertically at 90 degrees to the unit. The beacon is activated by pushing the on button.

This is one of the best PLB’s on the market in terms of PLB function. just remember, this does not have built in AIS so if you want nearby vessels to be able to find you, then you will need an AIS beacon too.
You can read our head to head comparison review here

Buy from: Global Telesat Communications


Ocean Signal RescueMe personal locator beacon

Reasons to buy: tiny beacon fits in a pocket, on a belt or inside the lifejacket casing. easy to operate singlehanded.

Reasons to avoid: some may find it too small to handle with cold hands. Doesn’t give a location signal to the vessels in the nearest vicinity, (you’ll need an AIS unit for that)

Specifications: battery life when activated 24 hours. Battery service life: 7 years. dimensions 7.7cm x 5.1cm x 3.25cm, Weight 116g

This compact product is designed for easy single-handed operation. It’s supplied with fittings for attachment to a belt or to a lifejacket.

The outer casing is smooth to touch with a neat design to stow the aerial. Unlike others, this aerial needs to be pulled out manually and rewound back in using the little finger winder on top.

You won’t accidentally have your eye out with this one as the aerial springs to attention as you’ll be manually operating it, however this does mean that you could forget this part when you go for the trigger button in a bit of an emergency and your brain  malfunctions.
This beacon has un-doubtably saved the lives of quite a few people as documented in some of the mainstream press articles. Including one of our own from a stort in our sister title Yachting Monthly, when a “PLB saved my life

You can see just how small this device is in the hand of the fellow whose life it saved.

Buy it now on Amazon

Buy it now on eBay

But it now from West Marine


McMurdo FastFind 220 PLB

Reasons to buy: Good value for money, simple robust design, comes with good range of attachments in the box.

Reasons to Avoid: does not have inherent buoyancy, does not inform local vessels using AIS of your location – you will need a different beacon for this function.

Specifications: Size W x D x H 112 x 36 x 50mm, 6 year replaceable battery life, Minimum of 24 hours continuous operation, Waterproof to 10m, signal frequency: 406 MHz international distress signal and 121.5 MHz homing signal, SOS LED flash light

The McMurdo FastFind 220 Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a rugged and waterproof GPS-enabled 406 MHz rescue beacon, though it doesn’t float, so make sure it’s tethered on or wearing a float jacket..

The Fast Find 220 features a 121.5 MHz secondary homing transmitter which means that once Search and Rescue teams have been deployed, they are able to home in on your exact location. The unit also features a flashing SOS light which can be used to attract attention. The Fast Find 220 has a minimum 24hr battery life when activated and the battery lasts for 6 years in storage before it needs to be replaced.

Buy McMurdo Fastfind from Global Telesat Communications

Kannad SafeLink SOLO

Reasons to buy: Good value for money, simple robust design, comes with good range of attachments in the box.

Reasons to Avoid: does not have inherent buoyancy, does not inform local vessels using AIS of your location – you will need a different beacon for this function.

Specifications: Size W x D x H 112 x 36 x 50mm, 6 year replaceable battery life, Minimum of 24 hours continuous operation, Waterproof to 10m, signal frequency: 406 MHz international distress signal and 121.5 MHz homing signal, SOS LED flash light

The SafeLink SOLO PLB is good value for money.
Waterproof to 10 metres it is easily activated by snapping off the topcap and pressing the activation button concealed under the cap facia.

It comes in the box with a lanyard, a buoyancy pouch and a universal carry pouch; which can be attached to a belt or strap.

The SafeLink SOLO is a 406MHz beacon which operates on the global COSPAS SARSAT satellite communication system, supported by international government search and rescue authorities around the world

It also transmits on the 121.5MHz homing frequency so that when the emergency services are nearby they can ‘home in’ on the signal. This is not an AIS signal though so only vessels equipped with the receivers to home in on 121.5 can do so. If you want local vessels to be able to find you, then an AIS beacon is also required.

It also has an SOS LED flashing light that is manually activated to be seen/identified visually in the dark


The best personal AIS beacons available right now

McMurdo S20 Lifejacket AIS Beacon

Reasons to buy: A flat slim unit fits easily in most lifejackets, easy manual activation, designed to fit inside a lifejacket outer casing

Reasons to avoid: If you are sailing solo then this will not notify anyone by satellite and may not be much use if sailing far from many other people/boats.

Specifications: battery life when activated 36 hours. Battery service life: 5 years. dimensions 129x52x40mm (L*W*D), Weight 160 g, Waterproof IP68, operating frequency : VHF Frequency AIS 1, 161.975MHz,  AIS 2, 162.025 MHz, VHF Range 4nm typical with receiver antenna / > 5m above sea level

I have had this unit fitted to most of my lifejackets in the past. It is simple and easy to operate. A swift pull of the lanyard and the housing slides off and the beacon is working, giving a clear signal to boats nearby of the MOB icon on all AIS screens.
As standard this unit has to be activated manually, although if fitted professionally it can be set for automatic activation by way of a lanyard that pulls of the activation tab when the lifejacket bladder inflates. It’s quite a basically system but it usually works pretty well.

The casing can take quite a sharp pull to remove it from the body of the unit so it is worth practicing this if you have the opportunity to familiarise yourself with the force required.

The main thing to note is that under the red removable case is a secon slide out piece of plastic with a magnet. This must be all the way out to activate the unit and the aerial must be pointing as high and skyward as possible for the best signal.

Buy it now on Amazon


Ocean Signal RescueMe MOB1 AIS

Reasons to buy: very slim design fits almost every lifejacket,

Reasons to avoid: If you are sailing solo then this will not notify anyone by satellite and may not be much use if sailing far from many other people/boats.

Specifications: operating  Frequency 161.975/162.025MHz, Waterproof 10m depth, Weight 92 grams, Dimensions 34 x 38 x 27 mm / 5.3 x 1.5 x 1.1 inches

This compact personal AIS beacon was introduced in 2015 but remains very popular.

It’s a slim device that fits next to the oral inflation tube of a lifejacket. It can be set to activate automatically when the lifejacket inflates, although this is fiddly to set up and needs to be re-done every time the lifejacket is serviced.

An integrated strobe light helps with the final precision locating of the casualty at night.

This is the smallest lightest AIS unit currently on the market that I know of at the time of writing.

Buy it now on Amazon

Buy it now from West Marine


ACR AISLink MOB Personal Beacon

Reasons to buy: ACR is a tried and trusted name in the marine safety gear market, Simple activation, can be autoactivated

Reasons to avoid: If you are sailing solo then this will not notify anyone by satellite and may not be much use if sailing far from many other people/boats.

Specifications:

This is another model that has a choice of manual or automatic activation and includes an ultra-bright LED strobe light.

The battery has a seven year lifespan and an operational life of 24 hours. The unit weighs only 92 grammes.

Buy it now on Amazon


Weatherdock Easy 2-MOB

Reasons to buy: very slim design, fits almost every lifejacket,

Reasons to avoid: If you are sailing solo then this will not notify anyone by satellite and may not be much use if sailing far from many other people/boats.

Specifications: o


SIMY My-MOB

Reasons to buy: ACR is a tried and trusted name in the marine safety gear market, Simple activation, can be autoactivated

Reasons to avoid: If you are sailing solo then this will not notify anyone by satellite and may not be much use if sailing far from many other people/boats.

Specifications:

This compact model has to be activated manually, rather than being automatically triggered when a lifejacket is inflated.

However, its size and shape mean it can be easily carried by crewmembers even if they are not wearing a lifejacket.

Price: £218

Buy it now on Amazon


If you are looking for other safety gear then we have several buyers guides you may find useful


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