CAN BLUETOOTH HELP SAVE YOUR LIFE?
Iput the PanPan CrewWatcher through its paces in the protected conditions of our Power & Motoryacht Test Shed in Essex, Connecticut. Why not brave the bounding main to test a system designed to help boaters stay alert to man overboard situations, and locate and recover lost crew, you may ask? I had the idea to see if this safety device meets a baseline of usability in ideal conditions, before being subjected to the rigors of on-water testing. Could we get it to connect to a tablet in a warm, dry office?
CrewWatcher is a system that combines an app, which runs on mobile smart devices, and an electronic beacon (app is free; $90 for one beacon, $170 for two). Tablets and smartphones that use the Apple iOS 6.1 or Android 5.1 and up are recommended. In the interest of simplicity, I loaded the app on an iPad 2, a 16-gigabyte model running iOS 9.3.5. The app uses the iPad’s built-in GPS sensor (the system won’t work with assisted GPS as found in wifi-only iPads) and Bluetooth connectivity (compatibility with Bluetooth 4.0 is recommended). Also, the manufacturer of the system recommends it for non-steel boats under 45 feet.
The CrewWatcher beacon is a sealed cylindrical unit measuring about 3¼ inches long and 1¼ inches in diameter with a lanyard loop at one end. The manufacturer says its battery life is three years or more. The beacon needed to be activated, counterintuitively, by submerging it in water. And not just a glass of water, the manufacturer suggests a bucket. Once activated, the beacon is attached to a lifejacket or foul-weather jacket, and signals the app should the beacon get wet or the signal be compromised.
When that happens, the app’s happy green screen with the message “Everyone’s OK” changes to an eye-catching orange color, while a siren sounds, followed by a verbal signal from the device. As the Dutch-inflected English emphatically warns, “man overboard,” a “start rescue” button appears on the app screen. Touch that button and, when the device connects to the MOB beacon, it signals the distance to the recovery point and also gives the lat/lon position of the beacon as well as the compass heading to direct the boat to our imaginary crewmate.
It’s a good idea, but my main concern stems from my personal experience with Bluetooth. If you find yourself sitting on a boat in some sunny port of call with me and a Bluetooth speaker, and we were to have a competition to see who could connect to that speaker more quickly to choose the music, it would be no contest: Cue up your playlist, because I will lose every time. Bluetooth and I just don’t see eye to eye. I find it to be a technology that sometimes doesn’t want to work, and that’s a frustration I don’t want to add to any day, let alone a day on the water. Once activated and connected to the iPad, the beacon worked for me. I’ve had other devices where the connection doesn’t work. Troubleshooting the problem online, I found that many factors can influence any Bluetooth device’s success, including, but not limited to, the following: The smartphone or tablet operating system must be kept up to date assiduously. The battery life of the Bluetooth device may be the culprit. And one common solution is to turn the Bluetooth device off and back on. The latter two are clearly not an option with the CrewWatcher’s sealed unit.
Another thing to guard against with a device like this is the false sense of security that can arise, and the CrewWatcher seems to acknowledge this in its very design, since it won’t tell you everyone is OK if it doesn’t have electronic confirmation of that. But only if the crew keeps their beacons on—jackets and lifevests get taken off at times.
CrewWatcher is a tool to help a boater keep track of everyone. It’s another weapon in a captain’s arsenal, but it’s no substitute for a good system of keeping tabs on the crew. crewwatcher.com
The PanPan CrewWatcher works best when worn.