Sailors given a beacon of hope

A wristwatch that could help save the lives of sailors who fall overboard has been developed by UK marine safety engineers.

The Guardian – a digital watch incorporating an ultra-miniature distress beacon – is currently making its mainstream commercial debut in the Volvo Ocean Race.

The device adapts technology originally developed for the North Sea oil fields, where it is used by BP’s oil rig workers and divers to give them a better chance of being found if they get lost at sea.

The beacon automatically activates when it falls into the water, instantly alerting crewmates that someone is overboard via an alarm installed on the ship and allowing them to begin following its distress signal.

The watch also begins transmitting a swept tone on the 121.5MHz international mayday frequency. The signal is powerful enough to be picked up by rescue vessels or helicopters, which can then home in on the watch using their detection-finding equipment.

The £250 watches are currently being used for the first time by competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race, one of the world’s premier yacht racing events.

The Guardian’s manufacturer, Portsmouth-based marine safety equipment supplier McMurdo, developed the device in conjunction with location-tracking specialist SML Technologies.

McMurdo’s managing director Gary Mollins said the watch was the next step in a process of miniaturisation across the company’s range of marine electronics technology.

This range includes more powerful 406MHz beacons equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite tracking, which allow a ship’s location to be calculated to within a few feet from anywhere in the world. McMurdo already produces a GPS beacon barely larger than a mobile phone.

‘The breakthrough with the Guardian was getting the circuit down to a small enough size to fit in a watch. It had been used successfully in the oil fields and we felt it was time to take it to the wider marine market,’ said Mollins.

McMurdo’s parent company, the UK defence and electronics group Chemring, this week identified marine safety as an area with significant growth potential. Chemring claimed that more stringent maritime legislation, along with advances in GPS and digital technologies, would boost the market for its distress beacons.

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