Marine Communication Safety: a review of the Standard Horizon HX300 VHF radio and ACR Personal Locator Beacon PLB-350C

The ACR Aqualink PLB-350C adjacent the Standard Horizon HX300

The ACR Aqualink PLB-350C adjacent the Standard Horizon HX300

When I was first invited to paddle OC2 in the New York harbor with an experienced friend, I saw him put on his PFD and put his radio in a pocket. He put his cellphone in a waterproof Pelican box and connected it to the front of the canoe, under the crisscrossing bunjees. He plainly stated that communication must always be carried. I went home that day, in the summer of 2017, and put considerable time into reading reviews of VHF radios. Ultimately I selected the HX300 for its size and features. Over the past year and a half I have frequently paddled with it and have always had it with me on my OC1 in the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.

My review is overdue and prompted from the news of the drowning death of my associate paddler, Alistair Collier of the UK. I spent a week paddling with Ali at the Guadeloupe downwind camp hosted by Woo last year and am utterly disheartened to hear of the paddling community loss of this wonderful gentleman. I have certainly come across the blogs of others covering tragedy, and the focus of this entry is the prevention of any other. Ali’s close friends informed me he did not have any communication device on him and for reasons as yet unknown, the safety boats lost track of him early on during his final race.

I never would have thought a safety escort boat would not be paying attention. We must be prepared for worst case scenarios. I write this entry now not as an idle review but to urge you to be the most responsible person in your canoe.

Your safety is in your hands. The first step you need to take as a paddler is the commitment to safe paddling. When you can save yourself, you have a chance of saving others.

Now for the dry technical stuff.

My biggest concern was size. The bulkier the radio, the bulkier the assembly of stuff on my person, the bulkier my PFD, the harder it is to get onto the canoe. After considerable deliberation I finally chosen the HX 300, which easily fits inside the large front pocket of my Mocke PFD. At 5.25”x2.5”x1.5” this was as compact as I could get with its features.

Standard Horizon HX300 inside the Mocke PFD front pocket. Note the orange whistle also.

Standard Horizon HX300 inside the Mocke PFD front pocket. Note the orange whistle also.

Another major consideration was the USB charging port and the orange back light.

The orange light could be indispensable in night conditions.

The orange light could be indispensable in night conditions.

I have now been using the HX300 for a year and a half. The battery life is great. I actually don’t know how long it lasts before it dies because it has not even gotten close to dying. What little recharge is required takes no time with the USB connection. This is also invaluable for travel outside of the U.S., because of the USB ports-to-other country-voltage chargers prevalent on the phone/computer market.

I recently returned from 2019 downwind paddle camp in Guadeloupe, where channel 71 (canal soixante dix-un) was used by our French coaches for their communication. I tuned in just to have it, just in case. I do not recall seeing any other paddler in the group with a communication device.

For those researching VHF radio use for travels I urge you to make the purchase and ask the locals how it is used in your paddling location. In the U.S., in the New York harbor, we use channel 16 to reach the Coast Guard. Typically I leave the radio on and listen to the intermittent chatter. It is quite reassuring.

If you are thinking your phone will take care of you, keep in mind that you might be in a dead zone for signal, especially in a foreign country or on an island like Guadeloupe. Also keep in mind that you will need to know the local dial code to reach police, etc. A VHF radio could get you in contact with another vessel in close proximity to you right away. “Mayday,” is the universal distress call, which I recently learned is French:

Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing the letter "S" by telephone, the international distress signal "S.O.S." will give place to the words "May-day", the phonetic equivalent of "M'aidez", the French for "Help me." 
—"New Air Distress Signal," The Times [London], 2 Feb. 1923

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Mayday

universal distress call

If no vessels are close enough to hear your call for distress and survival is questionable, your investment in a personal locator beacon, like the ACR Aqualink PLB-350C is your way to alert the global emergency response teams you are in peril. I purchased the ACR for my trip to Guadeloupe in 2018, and I kept it inside my paddle shorts pocket at all times. I chose the product that is a little bulkier because it incorporates technology that allows you to test that it works periodically. I needed the peace of mind. When I heard about Ali’s untimely fate my first day of camp in 2019, both of my communication devices became my closest allies, ensuring to me that my idea of the greatest time in the world - playing in the ocean - was also respectful of the ocean’s power. We love the ocean, but she has no emotions for us.

Safety has long been an aspect of my dayjob. The general rule is that the day you become so comfortable that you no longer respect your environment, that is the day you are open to getting hurt or worse. When a man at camp told me to do whatever the leader said, because the leader was a safe guy, I respectfully declined and used my own leg leash instead of the one provided. Something as simple as a minor equipment substitution can throw our game. Do what you know is right for you. Rehearse with your safety gear, practice hulis and distress maneuvers with your club. Be your own best guide.

And now for more technical information.

I fumbled with the the ACR antenna when I first got the equipment. The antenna wraps around the body and a male notch on the antenna fits into a female notch on the body of the unit.

The antenna.

The antenna.

When the antenna is up, the red emergency button is exposed. Once pressed a signal is sent to an emergency satellite system, and the dispatch process to search and rescue teams proceeds. Each unit is registered to its individual owner. Mine is registered with NOAA. You must fill out documentation that comes with your unit to get it registered. The search and rescue team will know who you are, where you are and be able to notify next of kin. There are additional packages for texting and so forth depending on what you choose.

The bulk of the unit is the built-in battery, which has a multi-year life expectancy. The only thing it does is send the distress signal and provide your GPS to the search and rescue team.

I’m pretty sure I read something like this when I was reading PFD reviews, but you won’t care what the thing cost when it saves your life. This unit runs about $400. I bought both units online.

Here is a video of what happens when you press the test button:

You won’t be allowed to obsessively test the unit. Doing so would drain the battery. So the computer in the unit will only allow you periodic tests. Don’t abuse it.

The Aqualink comes with a strap and a place to secure it. It also comes with a clip system. The HX300 does not have a strap that works without a clip, which ads to its bulk. I’ve left the clip off and just kept it secure in the PFD pocket.

The straps, clips and belt clips.

The straps, clips and belt clips.

In closing, please be an ambassador of the water. Play it safe for yourself and for all others.

Rest in peace, Ali.

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Racking my Brain about Boat Racks: Customizing a factory rack for Lockrack and an outrigger canoe

The season started off with a plea from the Wanda Canoe Club on the Hackensack River in New Jersey. Our old boathouse was falling apart and had been condemned by the local village of Ridgefield. We had decided to buy a shipping container, and it had fallen upon me to find a rack solution. Already familiar with Unistrut - a widely used, engineered rack system meant for making racks on the fly - I had proposed this material to the club. Frankly, while I had seen it used in miles of mechanical chases on buildings I've worked on, I had not thought to use it for my own needs.

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A fellow paddler just happened to be getting some boat repair work done by Cliff Roach of Goodboy Paddlesports, and soon Cliff and I were in discussions about how to use his aluminum systems with Unistrut inside the metrically engineered container.

It turns out that small steel beams spanning the top of shipping containers are bolted into place, so it only took a few minutes to attach some Unistrut hardware when we Wanda Loons took our first good look at the container interior in May. I also took measurements and verified in a 3D drawing that we could indeed fit 20 vessels of approximately 22' in length each inside the container. As much as I had seen the Goodboy racks all over the east coast, after a trip to Lowe's - to the electrical section - I made my own V-rack out of Unistrut. (Sorry, Cliff!)

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Right away I was concerned about the wobble. I gave some of the Goodboy roof racks a tug and noticed they wobbled also. V-racks wobble. Period. I had heard a story about a paddler crossing the Verrazano Bridge in a heavy wind and their concern the boat would shear off their car like broken propellor. I shared this concern. What if?

But with proper strapping, everything would surely be ok. A lot of strapping. An hours worth of fiddling and strapping and fiddling. Can't we be on the water by now? I slipped in the rain while fiddling with a strap and came down very hard on an elbow. Straps be damned!

Introducing the South African made Lockrack.

It was so promising yet so expensive and clearly made for paddleboards and surfskis - not for outriggers. I just couldn't get all the measurements I needed to verify whther it could work with an outrigger - until I clicked on etrailer.com. A Lockrack vendor, they have A LOT of photos and some decent videos featuring the product line. One even featured a Subaru Crosstrek - my car!

The Verrazano Bridge spans from Staten Island to Brooklyn, where the waters are pinched heading into the New York Harbor and the wind doesn't give a damn about your canoe!

The Verrazano Bridge spans from Staten Island to Brooklyn, where the waters are pinched heading into the New York Harbor and the wind doesn't give a damn about your canoe!

Lockrack's customer service is virtually non-existent, but the folks at etrailer pick up the phone and answer questions, sometimes by making webpages with answers. Still I could not get exact measurements from Lockrack or etrailer. Which rack would work for me?

So, I pulled measurements off a photo. What else was I to do?

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Lockrack makes a surfski model, and at first I was convinced this would be the closest match to an outrigger for rack sizing. However, after watching the Lockrack video for surfski I realized the rack arms were made to hug the low profile seat area. I was also concerned that the Lockrack is meant to go with factory crossbars, which are less than ideally spaced for 20'+ long boats.

The one obvious difference you will notice between a V-rack and a Lockrack is that on a V the hull is down and on the Lockrack it is up. Well, if you scroll way down to the start of this blog you will find my extensive below-the-waterline repairs. Gravity is great when you're paddling, but in storage or transit, I think it is best for the hull to be up. So, how in the world would I make this great Lockrack idea work for me?

Unistrut saves the day again.

Unistrut saves the day again.

The answer was Unistrut. You can see by the photo above how the factory rack actually has a very narrow ovulate crossbar with only about 30" width - the sides being taken up by bulky connectors to the siderails. I wanted to maximize the width of the car for easy boat loading and leave room for my ama or another outrigger or paddleboard altogether. I set the length of the adjustable Unistrut rails to 6' and added cross-pieces. The universal adapters were not required, and I was increasingly skeptical of Lockrack's new "X" version racks - that split apart to adjust to even wider paddleboard or boats. They just looked flimsy, so after a lot of head scratching I finally went with, of all things, the 2x SUP carrier - because of the size. I replaced the 10mm bolt that came with the package and used 1/4" x 20 x 1 1/2" pan head torx bolts to attach the Lockrack main bars to Unistrut nuts. These bolts and nuts will set you back about $12 if you buy them in packs, and if your Lowe's get as ransacked as mine you might be better off buying the misc hardware from McMaster-Carr.

Unistrut nut and stainless bolt versus included hardware for Lockrack. Nut and bolt cost about $1.50 each. You will need 4.

Unistrut nut and stainless bolt versus included hardware for Lockrack. Nut and bolt cost about $1.50 each. You will need 4.

You will notice my hatch is fully up. No more banging of the forehead due to a low hatch pushed up against a longer rack bar.

You will notice my hatch is fully up. No more banging of the forehead due to a low hatch pushed up against a longer rack bar.

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A 2' 2-step Werner ladder also fits neatly in the Subaru Crosstrek 2018 cargo bay. No more standing-on-the-wheel-well acrobatics and straps for this paddler!

A 2' 2-step Werner ladder also fits neatly in the Subaru Crosstrek 2018 cargo bay. No more standing-on-the-wheel-well acrobatics and straps for this paddler!

I could not understand what the black washers were for until I installed the Lockrack. They are basically spacers, required to allow the moving arms enough clearance to slide in and out. So you definitely need them.

Unfortunately, I live in a New York City neighborhood where people dig through the trash for recyclables and will take just about any kind of metal off the street (a band of thieves was brazenly stealing NYC public garbage cans earlier this year). Leaving the $275 Lockrack on the car was not an option, especially after I saw this salvage man stroll right past me. 

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Thus far I like the Lockrack, but here are a couple of things they won't show you. The inner arm isn't exactly something you can reach to adjust or turn on its side. I had to install the system as one piece. When you go to put the rubber base back in, it's a pain. And thirdly, the "keys" are something you are going to lose. They are cheap, black plastic and gonna roll off your car and into the sand. Goodbye. So, I plan on modeling one and 3D printing some in bright orange. Other than that, the next challenge is actually getting an outrigger canoe on and in it in preparation for a jaunt to Florida to pick up my new Kahele. 

Waterline up.

Waterline up.

I loaded the canoe in the same way I load a V-rack - by inserting the bow first then walking the stern end up. The racks as positioned landed right at the iako humps - the strongest parts of an outrigger canoe. The Lockrack arms did not fit this canoe snugly and were off by an inch or two. Time to add foam! The black rubber that comes with the Lockrack system is so stiff it's really only suitable for plastic boats, so I had pretty much assumed I'd want to add foam. I already had some Dakine rack pads around, and the Dakine foam (which they say is custom but is nothing more than pipe insulation) wraps reasonably well around the Lockrack arm.

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You can't own enough foam when your canoe is carbon...

This foam is pipe insulation disguised under a Dakine logo on 600D polyester.

Pipe insulation. I mean, custom extruded foam...

Pipe insulation. I mean, custom extruded foam...

I expect I will need to tweak foam and possibly the distance between Lockrack arms when I pick up my new canoe, but after that I expect to use the Lockrack as advertised. I reinstalled the whole system today in just under ten minutes, as well as loaded and unloaded the canoe at about a minute each. I decided to try driving with the Lockrack arms in, and they made an awful rattle, so I took them all out in about a minute and stashed them in the Subaru cargo hatch. The pin that holds the rack arms in place definitely has a chance of shearing off over time, especially with that looseness and rattle. I don't recommend keeping them in while driving at all. I will do a follow-up review once I complete my road trip with the new Kahele. See you on the water!

Marine Stickers: My Sticker Makes it Mine!

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Why my sister turned into a sticker making nut around the same time I turned into a paddling nut, only the sirens who seduce us to our passions could say. Lest we crash upon the rocks, at least we will we able to identify our stuff from our stickers! These are cut from marine grade vinyl. If you are interested in stickers (which come in different fonts, colors and sizes) for your paddle gear or boat, hit me up by email.

 

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