Sirius Signal SOS Distress Light Review

Spring commissioning always involves taking inventory of spare parts, gear and safety equipment to make sure we're prepared for the season ahead. Invariably, it feels like our flares are expired every spring, though in reality I believe they have a shelf life of about 3 years. When they are truly expired, I'm always at loss for how to properly and safely dispose of them. Replacing them requires a $40 purchase. These are minor hassles for the inherent safety (and USCG compliance) that carrying the flares onboard provide.

But have you read the what the USCG says about electronic alternatives?

From Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 175.130:
Any of the following signals, when carried in the number required, can be used to meet the requirements of 175.110:
1) An electric distress light meeting the standards of 46 CFR 161.013. One is required to meet the night only requirement.
2) An orange flag meeting the standards of 46 CFR 160.072. One is required to meet the day only requirement.

From Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Subpart 161.013:
Electric S-O-S Distress Light: This is an alternative to flares for recreational boats. It is required to automatically flash S-O-S. Light intensity and duration requirements apply. Electric S-O-S distress lights are self-certified by the manufacturer. The Coast Guard does not issue approvals or keep an authenticated list of manufacturers. Approval standards for these are found in Title 46, Subpart 161.013.

The folks at Sirius Signal have a "Why didn't I think of that" alternative that meets the above requirements and it's called the SOS Distress Light (exclusively manufactured and distributed by Weems & Plath). According to Sirius Signal, this is the first and only LED visual distress signal device that meets USCG requirements to completely replace traditional pyrotechnic flares. This is good news because the SOS Distress Light never expires (battery changes keep it fresh) and therefore no flare disposal challenges are encountered.

So what exactly is the SOS Distress Light? Well, it's essentially a floating LED light on a handle that flashes the SOS light sequence. Turning it on is as simple as twisting the lens on top to activate the extremely bright LED with visibility for up to 10 nautical miles. It also comes with the orange signal flag from CFR 175.130 above to meet daytime requirements. The run time is listed as up to 60 hours on 3 C-cell batteries. Holding it feels a bit like holding an ice cream cone because of the foam flotation ring, but it's incredibly simple in concept and operation. The light floats with the lens up to optimize the all-around horizontal and vertical beams. What I also really like is that it can also be used as part of a crew-overboard procedure by tossing it in the water if someone falls off so you can more easily locate them.

I'm loving the SOS Distress Light. I no longer have to carry pyrotechnics onboard, nor do I have to buy new flares every couple of years or hassle with disposal of outdated flares. There's not much downside here other than needing to keep fresh batteries stocked. I suppose some might question the overall visibility, considering that the flag must also be flown if used during daylight hours. Still, I'm a believer and am eager to get the Coast Guard's reaction during a vessel safety inspection this coming summer.

A Circumnavigation with Two Girls and a Tree Named Makeba

"At the end of your life, you're not going to remember all the knick-knacks and gadgets you had around you ... you're going to remember how far you could see when you looked out on the horizon. 
-Amy Lukas

Have you seen the t-shirt that says "You can't buy happiness, but you can buy a boat and that's just about the same thing"?

Best friends Amy Lukas and Mary Catterlin would argue that you don't even have to buy the boat. Instead, you can build one from a single cottonwood tree and sail it on a 1,200 mile 93 day circumnavigation of Lake Michigan that's filled with happiness.

I suppose it started with Mary wanting to own a boat but not being able to afford one. So naturally she decided to make one. A downed cottonwood tree provided the materials. She then spent three years carving the hull out of the tree trunk and creating her very own dugout canoe. Makeba (mah-KAY-buh) was born. With Amy's help, outriggers and a sailing rig from a Sunfish were added. At a mere 11 feet in length, Makeba was a small vessel for a grand adventure.

In 2012, Amy and Mary set off paddling and sailing their way around the shoreline of Lake Michigan and learning about the big lake and friendship in ways that few will ever experience. Along the way they met interesting people, overcame obstacles and accomplished the goal they set for themselves. I saw Amy and Mary present about their adventure at the State of Lake Michigan Conference last fall and immediately knew their story was perfect for

What follows is an interview I did with Amy and Mary. If you want more details about their adventure, check out their website. Better yet, watch their documentary or buy their book, Lake Michigan in a Dugout.

What did your time sailing and paddling around Lake Michigan teach you about the Great Lakes and living in close connection to the water?

Amy: Lake Michigan is beautiful at all times of the year, not just from Memorial Day to Labor Day. From the warm glassy water in July, to the wild waves of September, you can find beauty and a sense of wonder on the water regardless of the season. Finding yourself on top of a monstrous dune or on a completely empty stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline is something magical. Being by the water day in and day out is calming. We are extremely fortunate to call part of Lake Michigan home. It was really inspiring to see how much people love their portion of the lake - it gives me hope that all sections of our Great Lakes are being advocated for by those who have a connection to the water. The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world, and to think that they are right in our backyard to explore is...amazing! If people are exposed to the Great Lakes, they will inevitably fall in love with them (how could they not?) and will have a stake in protecting these precious areas for years to come.

Similarly, what did the time together teach you about friendship?

Amy: One of the most frequent remarks that comes our way after hearing about our adventure is, "I just can't believe that you're still friends!" So I guess we've learned that it's difficult to find friends that you go on extended trips with successfully. I couldn't imagine it turning out any other way; we were back to going on mini adventures the day we got off Lake Michigan. Some friends end up being more like family, and Mary is definitely like a sister to me. Our personalities just mesh well together and we're usually giggling at something silly. Humor helps in friendships, as well as in most situations we find ourselves in throughout life.

Mary: I believe we each learned and better appreciated how lucky we are to get along so well for so long. With such similar interests, goals, and attitudes we were able to share this experience and many others with, I think, greater meaning. It's wonderful to be able to share so much with a good friend, be it struggles and achievements alike.

Cruising sailors often give dreamers the advice of "Just go...Don't wait!" when asked how to make it happen or how to afford a sailing adventure. So, how did you make your adventure a reality, both financially and emotionally? Maybe you can talk about some of the trade-offs that were required to make it happen.

Mary: I had no idea how to build a boat, but I took on the project wholeheartedly, knowing that the process was part of the adventure. Commitment and patience gave me a great focus in what I wanted in life and allowed me to more easily take on one obstacle after another. Overthinking a project can make it too daunting if you try and put every problem ahead of you before even taking that first step. I say, just figure it out as you go and don't stop going.

Amy: We had both just graduated from university, with no major commitments line up, so it really was a great time to "just go." Sure we had to put aside some job opportunities, but we both wanted to go for this adventure more than any conventional job anyways. We were very DIY, freestyling everything (see: Makeba) so we made things work. We did set up a crowd funding page on Indiegogo to get our story out there and to gather some support and donations for our trip. We weren't hoping to raise much, but did need some help with funds for some of the more expensive gear that we didn't already own. Reaching out to several companies for sponsorship, as well as family and friends for borrowed items, put our adventure within reach.

What do you wish you would have known before starting the circumnavigation?

Amy: How quickly it would end. At times, the loop seemed to drag and it felt like we were making no progress at all. I wish we would have slowed down our thoughts during those moments especially to really take in the lake, the people, and the journey we were on. Before we knew it, we were less than 100 miles from home and then it was over in a flash. We cherished every moment; I just wish our lake was bigger so that we would have had even more days to explore and travel along the shoreline.

Mary: I don't know if I would have wanted to know more beforehand - especially since we were successful. Naivety and open mindedness have been some our greatest strengths against new challenges. Of course we did our research and planned as much as possible before setting off, but I think our lack of experience in long expeditions gave us a small advantage. No discouraging experience could stop us from trying to achieve our dream.

Have you gained new perspectives about living simply? If so, what are they?

Amy: We had to pack and unpack, thinking about to take and not take. And in the end, it wouldn't have mattered much about whether or not we took an extra shirt or extra camera battery. Those are all little details that blur the bigger picture. At the end of your life, you're not going to remember all the knick-knacks and gadgets you had around you, you're going to remember the way that your stomach hurt from laughing so hard about forgetting to zip the tent, you're going to remember the instant you connected with someone who you now must have known in some past life, and you're going to remember how far you could see when you looked out on the horizon. I think we both already had ideas about how little you need to make a happy life. Living out of an eleven foot boat for 93 days really put the "living simply" perspective to the test though. And it's true, you can be the happiest you've ever been in a tiny boat on the water with your best friend.

Thank you to Amy and Mary for agreeing to this interview and sharing a small part of your story! By the way, if you liked Amy and Mary's story, you'll probably also like Katie and Jessie's story, another sailing adventure from a female duo originating in the Great Lakes.

Sailing Gear Review: NaviSafe Navi Light 360 Portable Anchor Light

One of the great joys of owning a boat is anchoring out, whether it be for one night, one week or some portion of a lifetime. I love the -isms of life on the hook: escapism, minimalism, hedonism, tuism. Yes, tuism is a real word. It's the theory that individuals have a second or other self. So I think I'm using it correctly when I say I'm a different person at anchor. Life is slower. My mind is clearer. It's here that I live in the moment.

But I digress, so let's get to the point of this post, which is to review an option for a portable, battery powered anchor light.

Obviously, we've got a masthead anchor light on our sailboat, but it's the only remaining bulb on the boat that's not LED. This bothers me. I'm a big proponent of LED bulbs on boats because of their energy efficiency and long life. And I admit to neurotically losing a bit of sleep at night thinking about the incandescent bulb eating up juice from the house battery bank. I know the bank is plenty big enough to endure 10-hours of anchor light use, but still...

Unfortunately, the stock anchor light fixture from Catalina doesn't have a dome large enough to accept an LED bulb and I haven't gotten around to upgrading to an entirely new fixture. So I've been experimenting with alternative anchor lights instead. My go-to portable anchor light the last couple of years has been the Carmanah M550, a really high quality solar powered LED that has a remote control and up to 3 nautical miles of visibility. The downside to recommending the M550 is the high cost and limited availability. Of course the ultra affordable option is a solar garden light available for just a few bucks, but the build quality is atrocious and they certainly don't meet USCG requirements for a safe, legal anchor light.

I wasn't looking to replace the M550, but it now has competition. I recently picked up a Navi Light 360 from NaviSafe. The gear I review here at SailFarLiveFree is stuff we honestly like and use on our sailboat. Having said that, occasionally there's some gear that we really love - gear that stands above the rest. The NaviSafe Navi Light 360 is one of my all-time favorites.

But before I gush too much about it's features, let me tell you what I don't like. I don't like that's it's powered by 3 AAA batteries. It would be better if it had a rechargeable Ni-Cd battery so I could simply plug it in during the day for a recharge instead of needing to carry extra AAA's. Or better yet, I'd much prefer a built-in solar charging option like the M550 has, or at least a USB power port so I could charge it with my 15 watt panel. The trade-off with having built-in solar is, of course, that the overall size of the light would need to increase and as it is, the NaviSafe is about half the size and weight of the M550. Which brings me to the NaviSafe's first advantage, it's small and compact - about the size of a cupcake. For comparison sake, the M550 is more like the size of a hamburger and bun.

What else do I like about the NaviSafe? Well, the basics are good: 360 degrees of very bright LED visibility with a 2 nautical mile range and USCG approval. It also meets ABYC A-16 nav light standards.

Here's the Navi Light 360 off and on (all 16 LEDs lit)

And then there are bonus features that make it outstanding. First, it's fully waterproof to 65 feet and floats with the light facing up, so it can double as a rescue/MOB light. There's also a plastic ring on the top of the light that glows for 8 hours with just 10 minutes of daylight charging. This is useful for finding the NaviSafe in the dark before the LEDs are turned on.

Mounting options are plenty and begin with a double magnet base. The base plate separates from the rest of the light via magnets, so you can leave the base plate mounted (either temporarily or permanently) while stowing the light below decks when it's not needed. The base plate itself can be mounted with any of the following, all of which are included: an adjustable Velcro strap, an adjustable lanyard, or a stainless steel screw. I'll probably most often use the Velcro strap around the end of the boom since the strap is big enough to go around the furled sail and sail cover - Nice! I'm also planning to use the NaviSafe as the all-around white light on our dinghy, so portability and mounting options are a clear benefit.

The light itself is actually comprised of 16 separate LEDs positioned in a circle so they provide 360 degrees of visibility when they are all lit. With all 16 LEDs on, the 3 AAA batteries will provide 13-15 hours of operation. While 13 hours is long enough for a night on the hook and will be just fine for cruisers who use the NaviSafe as a back-up for their masthead hardwired anchor light, it will mean a lot of battery changing for those who will use this as an anchor light more frequently, which is why I'd prefer a rechargeable Ni-Cd battery.

The packing shows the functions quite nicely

There are other modes if you don't need all 16 LEDs (360 degrees) or want longer burn times. The light can also be set to flash (80-85 hours), forward lights only (10 LEDs, 225 degrees, 22-24 hours), backward lights only (6 LEDs, 135 degrees, 30-32 hours), or dim lighting (4 LEDs, 70-72 hours).

To sum things up, I think the Navi Light 360 should be in every cruisers gear bag. It's an excellent back-up anchor light that can also function just as well as a MOB rescue light or simply an extra moveable cabin light. It's not the perfect solution for a full-time anchor light because of the battery usage (I like the Carmanah better for this singular purpose), but it does everything else extremely well.

Want to get one? Use our affiliate link (At no extra cost to you!) and help support SFLF:

>> Don't forget to visit SFLF's Gear Review page for more sailing gear reviews/tests. <<

Head Over Keels in Love - Choosing a Cruising Sailboat

"Peace is not found in a calmer storm, it's found in a better boat." - Travis Meadows

I don't know what's web traffic stats are, but I'm guessing they pull huge numbers from both keel kickers and serious buyers trying to answer one basic question: What sailboat should I purchase for cruising? There's already been a lot written on the topic by sailors far more accomplished than me. For starters, I can't recommend these enough: Charlie Doane's The Modern Cruising Sailboat, John Kretschmer's Sailing a Serious Ocean and Beth Leonard's The Voyager's Handbook.

So I'm not going to reinvent the wheel with this post nor am I going to try to create the definitive source of information about choosing a cruising sailboat. Instead, I'm going to share a few simple tips I've picked up through reading, sailing, purchasing 5 boats of my own, and interacting with online sailing communities and some old salts on the dock.

My pride and joy, s/v Bearly-A-Wake

Ignore engine hours. If you're considering a diesel engine, don't get turned off by the engine hours. It's far more common for a marine diesel to die from neglect or outright abuse than to ever simply just wear out. So, what's far more important than the engine hours is knowing and verifying that the maintenance schedule has been followed. Also, carefully consider how easy it is to access common service points for tasks such as oil changes/checks, impeller changes, anode replacements, etc. This is particularly important if you intend to maintain the engine yourself. The better access you have to the engine, the more likely you (and any previous owner/s) are to keep up with maintenance.

Rule out what you don't want. After you've done your own research and are ready to start looking for the perfect cruiser (Here's a tip - They don't exist!), a good first step is to make a list of things that are deal breakers. Some of these might include your preference between catamaran or mono, aft or center cockpit, rig types (sloop, cutter, ketch, yawl, etc.), and hull material (FRP, metal, wood, etc.). Most the things on your deal breaker list should be things you can't change. For example, you might really want davits for your dinghy, but you can always add them to almost any boat for a fairly reasonable cost so they shouldn't be a deal breaker.

Don't get too up or down over electronics. While upgrading to a new complete electronics package for the helm can be expensive, electronics are also often outdated within just a couple of years, so don't put too much value on a shiny new chart plotter. And don't forget how powerful mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become for cruising. There's a growing array of excellent navigation, communication, weather and planning apps available that can supplement just about everything you need to safely operate your craft and make you feel like you have new electronics.

Fall in love. After all is said and done, I strongly feel a personal attraction to your sailboat is an important ingredient. She might have all the bells and whistles for globe trotting, but if you don't like the way she looks and feels, the dream can whither long before it becomes a reality. You want a boat that inspires you to keep her maintained. You want a boat that beckons one more glance back as you walk down the dock or putt-putt away on the dinghy. I'm not saying your friends and other sailors need to think she's the most beautiful or best sailing boat in the anchorage, but I am saying your boat should stir YOUR emotions.

Our first sailboat, s/v Hannibel. And yes, I fell hard from day one.

Turnkey boats aren't. Sailboats reflect their owner's personality, so even a dock queen isn't likely to be set up the way you'll want it or need it even if it's in pristine condition. Besides, if you've ever owned a boat before, you already know you never finish the maintenance list, you just simply start back over at the top again. So like I said, turnkey boats aren't turnkey.

Some features do add value. Good sails, a reliable motor, a quality autopilot, wind vane steering, an electric windlass and a reasonably speedy dinghy can be important assets for cruising. Some or all of these items can be added (at varying costs), but the point is that these are some of the features I think add actual value to a cruising boat, unlike a fresh coat of wax, newly painted topsides, air conditioning, or a new flat screen TV hung on the salon bulkhead.

Consider the resume. Find a boat that has already done the kind of voyaging you have in mind or was at least equipped to do so. If you're planning a milk run through the South Pacific, a sailboat that's already done that might have good downwind sails and rigging and extra tankage for reserve fuel and water (or even a watermaker). Similarly, if your adventurous spirit is leading you to high latitudes, a boat that's already cruised there could have a diesel heater installed or insulation added to the interior hull sides. A lot of the extras are expensive and depreciate very quickly, so it's a bonus if you can get a quality hull/motor/sails with life left in options that are on your upgrade list anyway.

Condition trumps age. It's often said, but is worth repeating - Condition and quality are much more important than how old a boat is. That's good to remember for resale too. Regardless of how old your boat is, if you keep her in good condition, you'll flatten the depreciation curve considerably.

Ask the pros. If you're still lost in a sea of sailboats to choose from and want professional advice, consider consultation from Bob Perry ($500) or John Neal ($750).

Our second sailboat, s/v Island Bound

The Sailboat Reviews page here at SFLF has tons of free, useful information and articles on sailboat design (rigs, keels, hull shapes, hull materials, etc.) from heavyweights like Bob Perry, Ted Brewer and Chuck Paine. Give them a read. At the very least you'll be entertained and more than likely gain some new knowledge.

If you've found a boat you're ready to seriously consider or want to make an offer on, you'll find some help in this post: Sailboat Inspection Tips for Prospective Buyers

Ready to browse cruising sailboats for sale? Here's a shameless plug for our grassroots sister website,, where "we make your dreams float".

I know many of you are already veteran cruisers and have a wealth of knowledge and more importantly, experience to share. Feel free to do so by dropping me an email or simply leaving your thoughts in the comments below. I'll do my best to keep this post updated with new information as it comes in from the cruising community.