Reviews of the SPOT locator beacon and the Alpine Bivy

By Steve Earley - Chesapeake, Virginia - USA

During my Fall Pamlico Sound trip I took along a couple of new items, one for safety and one for comfort. The safety item was the SPOT Personal Tracker, the comfort item was an Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy. By the end of the trip I realized that both pieces of gear provided comfort and safety. Let me tell you why.


The SPOT Locator Beacon described by the manufacturer as the world's first satellite gps messenger, was a gift from my Mom. She, along with other members of my family, friends and co-workers had worried about me as I took off on five or six day solo trips aboard Spartina. I would always leave a map of my sailing area, with possible anchorages, with my wife. But once I left they dock they never knew where I was until I called home at the end of the trip.

The SPOT Personal Tracker put an end to that. The device runs about $125 plus an annual service fee. I signed up for the basic service ($99.99 per year) plus the tracking ($49.99 per year). There is an another option that will cover up to $100,000 world wide search and rescue service that I did not purchase.

"Everything is ok"

Three times each day during my trip - when I raised anchor, midday and again when I was settled in my anchorage for the night - I would press the "OK" button on my SPOT. Moments later my friends and family would receive an email like the one below....

Everything is ok.
Nearest Location:not known
Distance:not known
Time:09/30/2008 10:57:00 (US/Eastern),-76.0809&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Click on the link above and you'll get a google map showing my location at the time the message was sent. This particular message was sent as I was sailing from Wysocking Bay to the north heading towards Caffee Bay to the west. Pretty cool, huh?

Once the first "OK" message of the day was sent I pressed the "OK" button again, but this time I held it down for five seconds. This activated the tracking feature, something the Spot people call Spotcasting. Every ten minutes SPOT would determine my location and mark it to a web page. Anyone with the URL for my trip could log on and track my progress real time throughout the day. I found that my family and friends did not use this feature, the three "OK" message each day seemed to work fine for them. Next year I'll probably skip the tracking feature and save myself $50 bucks. Having the track of the entire trip appealed to me, but it was easier to download it from my gps at no cost.

"Need Assistance"

Letting people know my location was nice, getting help or rescued can be important. If I had needed assistance - say I had broken the rudder or mast, or maybe run out of fuel - and WAS NOT in imminent danger, I could press the "HELP" button on the SPOT. Friends and family would receive an email with the text below, plus latitude/longitude and a google map.

Not in danger need assistance. Have contact boatus 18003914869 with position/mem no.XXXXXXXX.

Basically I was asking everyone receiving my email to get in touch with my brother and make sure he was relaying my request for assistance to BoatUS. Prior to the trip I did contact Boat US and they said they would in respond to such a request for help. Since I never used the "Help" button I cannot confirm that. But SPOT does buy full page ads in the Boat US magazine, so I think they would be familiar with the system.


If I was in imminent danger I would press the 911 button on the device. SPOT would then contact the appropriate organization, in my case the Coast Guard, give them my position and initiate a rescue. In my online SPOT profile I had the ability to give additional information that would be relayed to the rescuers. The information was something like this.......

Boat is 17'4" l.o.d. two masted open cockpit sailboat. Hull exterior is dark gear, interior is grey, decks are white.
Safety gear including flares, waterproof radio, signal strobe and self inflating vest with harness in use. Sealed hypothermia kit with survival materials and first aid kit on board.
Boat has built in positive flotation and sailor will stay with boat as long as possible.
Sleeping bag is bright orange, sleeping pad is bright green, foul weather gear and dry bags are yellow. Boom tent is white. Materials will be displayed as possible, along with lights, to aid in locating boat/sailor.
Tow vehicle and trailer are at Big Trout Marina, Engelhard, NC.
Elizabeth S. at XXX XXX-XXXX has a digital chart with sailing area marked that can be emailed at your request.

Unexpected Freedom

What I expected from Spot was safety and security, what I found was unexpected freedom. In the past I had made a sailing area chart for my wife with possible anchorages for the trip. And then I tried to stay close to that sailing plan, making each day's sail to the next planned anchorage. I figured if I did not get back to the dock on the expected day the Coast Guard would have a methodical way of searching for me. With Spot I still make the sailing area chart to leave with my wife, but I don't feel obligated to plan out starting and stopping points for each day. I can sail where the wind carries me, explore new anchorages, spend a day in a nice little cove fishing, reading and sleeping. It doesn't matter where I am at any given time as family and friends will always have my location. Of course I still carry all the safety gear and thoroughly research my sailing area. With common sense, good judgement and a little luck I hope to never push the assistance or 911 buttons on Spot. But it is nice to know that help or rescue is available with the push of a button.


Alpine Bivy

My favorite sailing areas on Pamlico Sound and Chesapeake Bay are lined by marshes. The marshes are beautiful. They are a nursery for fish and crabs. They provide a buffer to slow erosion of the shoreline. They filter the water coming down to the bay. And they provide a home for millions of mosquitoes.

I rarely notice mosquitoes during the day. In fact I can't recall a single day's sail when that has been a problem. But night time is a different story. I have a boom tent for my Pathfinder, but it is open at the aft end and has vents at the forward end to help with air circulation. It does nothing to stop the mosquitoes, doesn't even slow them down. I've tried bug sprays. I've tried anchoring a bit farther from shore. I've tried hunkering down in my sleeping bag. Mosquitoes, I had concluded, were an irritating price I would have to pay to be out on the water. But then I came across the Outdoor Research Alpine Bivy. I got mine from Amazon for about $200.00.

The Alpine Bivy is a one-person shelter with a breathable Gore-Tex upper piece and water-proof nylon bottom. A collapsible pole inserted in to the upper piece forms an arch that raises the fabric about 20 inches, creating some overhead space for the head and shoulder area. Access to the bivy is through a zippered area at the head/shoulders. That opening can be zipped closed with a Gore-Tex cover to make a weather proof shelter, left wide open for fresh air, or - better yet - zipped closed with mosquito netting.

The bivy fits perfectly on the bunk flat of my Pathfinder. I clip the purchase points at the foot end of the bivy to an eye strap forward on the bunk flat up forward beneath the foredeck, the shoulder purchase points are clipped to a pair of eye straps on the forward side of the thwart at the aft end of the sleeping area. I fasten the peak of the bivy's arch to a bungee cord that runs across the cockpit from one jib sheet fair lead to the other. Most of the time I sleep with the mosquito mesh in place. If the weather gets cool I reach up and release the Gore-Tex cover and let it fall in place.

The images I have seen of the bivy on the internet are a bit deceiving. They show a three-dimensional structure, almost like a small tent. But in fact the arched pole inserted in to the bivy above the chest area is the only vertical support. From that pole to the feet the Gore-Tex drapes down on the body. On a warm summer evening, when I wear shorts and a t-shirt, it feels like a soft comfortable sheet. In cooler temperatures there is room to slip a sleeping bag inside the bivy. For even more comfort straps on the floor of Bivy hold a sleeping pad in place. I've found the Therm-A-Rest self inflating pad is a good way to go.

On my last cruise I developed an evening routine that seemed to work well. Once I dropped my anchor I sent an "ok" message from my SPOT, cleaned up the boat and relaxed a bit. I cooked dinner, washed the pots and pans, got out the food for the next day and then set up my bivy. At that point I've usually got about 30 or 45 minutes of daylight left. I sat in the aft area of the cockpit - there's lots of open space on a Pathfinder - read, relaxed and made a few notes in my journal while watching the sun go down. From experience I know that the first mosquitoes will show up within five minutes of the sun dipping below the horizon. So when the sun disappeared I put up my anchor light on the bow stay and slipped in to the bivy. There was enough room to read by flash light under the bivy's arch, but after being on the water all day I was ready to sleep. It was kind of nice to fall asleep with the buzzing of one or two mosquitoes outside of the netting. I've found if they don't draw any blood they will soon disappear. And nothing beat waking up in the middle of the night and looking up through the netting at the beautiful night sky. Star gazing has become one of the highlights of my sailing trips.

I won't say that comfort is guaranteed on any small boat trip. I did spend a night on my Spring trip in what I thought was a perfect little cove. It was an unseasonably hot night, the wind died, the mosquitoes came out in droves. I sweated through an miserable night with clouds of mosquitoes buzzing outside the netting. But let's face it, we are out there in nature and we sometimes need to rough it a bit. But on a typical Pamlico Sound night I'll sleep in absolute comfort.

I still do carry my boom tent on the boat, but I only set it up if rain is in the forecast. The Alpine Bivy is weather proof, yet I'll still set up the boom tent just to keep water out of the cockpit. If the forecast is for clear skies I'll sleep in just the bivy. Five minutes to set up, five minutes to break down, no mosquitoes, incredible view of the stars and a good night's sleep. Can't beat that!

Safety is Comfort, Comfort is Safety

At the end of my cruise I had a different outlook on safety and comfort. I felt more rested and relaxed because of the SPOT personal locator beacon. The SPOT gave me a sense of security and freedom that put my mind at ease. I spent more time enjoying myself and less time worrying about what could go wrong. And I knew friends and family were not worrying about me either. Why should my attempt to have fun be a burden to others? With SPOT my mind was at ease, I was having more fun. Isn't that what it is all about? As for the Alpine Bivy, that started out being a comfort item but I now consider it a safety item. From experience I know I do not make good decisions when I am tired. I am distracted when I'm sore and achy. The bivy let me good a good, comfortable night's rest every night. I had more energy and a clear head. If I had problems I knew I would be able to deal with them. A good night of rest made the next day more enjoyable and safer.

As I see it now, a good piece of safety gear can make a trip more comfortable, and a piece of gear that makes me more comfortable will also make me safer.


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