SPOT Review

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Post  KFF on Sat Dec 06, 2008 5:40 am

Why Spot?

Having worked closely with the RNLI over the last year I became aware that really we should have at least 2 rescue/locating devices to meet the recommended but voluntary SOLAS V requirements for leisure craft. The primary is usually your VHF radio preferably with DSC linked to GPS (not so easy on a kayak). There are other systems out there such as EPIRBs, PLBs and SART but most, either on cost, size or overkill are not practical options for a kayak or the kayak fisherman. It was thanks to another forum member who highlighted the system that I became aware of the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker system. I contacted them and they agreed to let me have a trial unit for a no holds barred write up. The unit is not new and does have to be returned once the write up is complete.

SPOT Review IMGP1047

Although the unit was for a one month trial I still have it after 6 months. OOOPS. This has allowed me to give it a comprehensive trial and the unit is starting to show a little cosmetic wear. OOOPS again. Additionally, the RNLI are also now testing Spot as a result of different conversations I have had. It will be interesting to find out their thoughts.

What is Spot?

Spot is a commercial satellite based emergency locator and rescue system. In addition it has added functionality that allows the unit to be used for simple everyday communication including letting your family know where you are and that you are OK or that you need them (not the emergency services) to help. Maybe meet at a prearranged pick up point. You can also purchase a tracking service that will show them how you are progressing etc. All of these services can be notified using SMS or via the reported internet link to Google Maps.

The Spot unit has a relative low purchase price but does require an annual subscription (like a mobile phone). The tracking facility is another but relatively small optional annual subscription. Overall, SPOT is initially cheap to purchase when compared to EPIRBs and PLBs but after 2 years worth of subscriptions it becomes more expensive. However, rather than just taking up space it is the additional functionality and every trip usage that sets it apart and helps address the value for money argument.

How does the system work?

I want to try to avoid a technical appraisal of SPOT. Firstly, I probably do not fully understand it; secondly because it has been done elsewhere on the internet by far better qualified and finally because all that matters is that it does what it says on the tin. However, I do feel that a quick overview of the system is a good idea and thankfully the picture inside the manual just about sums it up for the non techie.

SPOT Review IMGP1049

Basically, the unit is updated by GPS satellites to its exact location. If you then activate one of the functions these co-ords are transmitted to your list of recipients that you have selected and loaded into your SPOT web account. The lists include mobile numbers and email addresses. The messages can be pre loaded into your account e.g.: Help = “Please pick me up” or the OK function can be pre loaded with “I am here and OK”. The message will also be transmitted with a Google Map internet link. Here is an example of an OK message I transmitted from a friend’s garden the accuracy is around 15ft:

Im Fine all OK. This is a SPOT Demo by Paul Fennell
Nearest Location: not known
Distance: not known
Time:07/22/2008 20:58:20 (GMT),-1.3819&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

Unfortunately, SPOT is not a worldwide system as it has to use geo-stationary satellites. These stay in a fixed position above the earth covering a fixed area. Therefore coverage tends to be limited to the major developed parts of the world. The map below shows system coverage. Fortunately, Europe has excellent coverage but you may not find it any use in South Africa and that trans Atlantic paddle will need some careful navigation.

SPOT Review SPOT_Coveragemap_Lrg_10-2008

As you can see SPOT is not specifically a maritime system and it can be used on land for trekking etc. The only thing to remember is that it does need a view of the sky to work and there was one instance where a Spot rescue did not happen as the casualty fell down a ravine and Spot was not able to get a signal out. Sadly the victim died. Ironically, this line of site requirement is probably better suited to the marine environment. It also highlights why just one system should never be relied on. One benefit of SPOT is that it will get a message out when VHF may not. It effectively has no range limitation in UK waters.

The Functions

Again a picture from the manual probably helps to explain the different functions and their uses.

SPOT Review IMGP1056

Help – Good for that mini crisis when you have no mobile coverage. Such as when the weather dictates that you have to land at an emergency location, miles from your car. Your nominated contacts can then come to collect you. This would also be very useful feature for those hiking in the mountains.

Here is an example of a Help message that I sent as part of the trial:

This is a SPOT Demo Help not required. Paul Fennell
Nearest Location: not known
Distance: not known
Time:09/28/2008 12:02:12 (GMT),-1.734&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

This plot is particularly interesting because it was sent during one of the SOT courses. The location is spot on although the Google picture is actually out of date. If you look closely you can see that the beach is being rebuilt (Note the plant equipment). Where the mark is really is now sea.

This is interesting for another reason. When I was at the Boat Show I was approached by an EPIRB salesman. We started to discuss EPIRBS, I think he thought I was officially part of the Johnsons Outdoors stand, and I mentioned SPOT. He almost had apoplexy, and said that he heard that it did not work when you are in the water (from a marketing perspective it is always a good sign when you get the competition to bite). However, putting his obvious bias to one side this was a pretty serious accusation and critical to the outcome of the test.

I am pleased to say that this Help message is proof that it does work when you are in the water. Thanks to Axor (Michael) the picture below is of me doing my Sea Otter impersonation while sending the above message. I was definitely in the water. You can see the SPOT unit on my left shoulder. Sorry, Mr EPIRB man the “rumour” you had heard appears to be a load of.....incorrect.

SPOT Review Bob1

OK- This is probably the most commonly used feature. It will notify your nearest and dearest that you are still alive and absolutely fine. It will even show them where you are via Google Maps. That’s nice!

Tracking – This is activated using the same button as “OK”. If you have purchased the upgrade, you simply press the button for 4 seconds and it will send out a position update every 11 minutes until you switch the function off. This function may be useful to your shore contact but it is of limited use to you if you have a GPS. Mind you it can be quite satisfying looking at your trip on Google Maps once you have got home. Here is a scan of a track printout I took following a trip from Kimmeridge towards Warbarrow. I did not have the unit on for the whole trip but I am sure you get the idea. You may need to zoom the image to 150% to get the overall idea.

911 – Pressing this button will ultimately end up in the Coast Guard co-ordinating your rescue. Needless to say they would not let me press it. DOH! However, despite me not being able test the 911 (It is American) feature they were incredibly open about how the system works. They have actually sent me their full corporate presentations and internal procedure documents and are quite happy for me to share them. However, I will keep it to the important elements.

When you press the 911 button an emergency signal is transmitted every 4 minutes. A fresh set of batteries will keep this going for 7 days. The signal will be received via satellite at a nuclear bunker in Houston, Texas. One of the teams in the International Emergency Response Control Centre (IERCC) centre is a fully qualified Search and Rescue team. They will initially make sure the signal is genuine and then they will notify the relevant national controlling authority with your details and location. This process takes on average 11 minutes, which is significantly quicker than the EPIRB system. The authorities (Coast Guard) will then co-ordinate the rescue in the usual manner. The Houston team will remain involved providing location updates until the rescue is over. That’s it in a nutshell.

The Spot Unit

The actual unit is palm sized; made of bright orange plastic with black rubber protective edging.

SPOT Review IMGP1064

The 4 function buttons are also made of rubber; all the buttons except the 911 button are flush with the body. The 911 button has a raised surround to help make it easier to find and to reduce the chance of accidental activation. The buttons are marked with the relevant function in white lettering. I do have one criticism, as you can see when comparing the picture above (used) with the one below (out of the box) this lettering does wear away. This is not a major issue for the owner but if a 3rd party had to use it to summon help it may present a problem.

SPOT Review IMGP0646

A close up of the wear:

SPOT Review IMGP1041

The unit is powered by 2 Lithium batteries. Just left switched on these will last for up to 1 year. They will power the tracking mode for 14 days continuous; send 1900 OK messages and keep the 911 mode running for up to 7 days. Personally, I would still carry a spare set of batteries.

SPOT Review IMGP1043

Also on the back is a belt clip. I was always worried that this was not secure enough but to be honest it never came adrift and I found that attaching it to the shoulder strap of my PFD was about the perfect solution. As you can see in the bobbing about picture above, this position naturally keeps the unit out of the water. Its size means that you quickly forget that it is there. When it is switched on you will find that you have to turn up your squelch setting on your VHF. This is not an issue but something to be aware of.

SPOT Review IMGP1036

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There is also a leash attachment point. It would be an improvement if a leash was actually supplied with the unit.

SPOT Review IMGP1039

On the back panel there is a foil emergency instruction panel which will instruct someone not familiar with the unit how to raise a 911 alert. Unfortunately, if the button lettering has worn away this becomes useless.

SPOT Review IMGP1044

Overall I found the unit tough and up to the job. There are several forum members that were around when I was doing these tests and they will vouch that I certainly did not treat it with kid gloves. I did deliberately drop the unit from waist height on to tarmac and it continued to work.

One essential spec for kayaking is that Spot claims that the unit is waterproof to 1.5m for 30 minutes and it floats. Well there’s a challenge. On 2 separate SOT courses I carried out all capsize drills with the unit switched on. I also just dropped it into the water. I must admit, I was a bit nervous at this point but here is the result.

SPOT Review IMGP0647

It does what it claims. However, in an emergency situation the unit is unlikely to send a message when in the water; any covering water will block the signal. It also has a habit of turning upside down but it does float.


The following are the prices sent to me by SPOT. However, I understand that John (J & H) has negotiated a unit purchase deal for forum members. I will let him confirm.

Retail Unit Price - £162.75
Annual Basic Satellite Service Subscription (i.e. OK/Help/911 functionality) - £80.51
Annual Tracking Upgrade Option (i.e. Share location with friends & family via Email/SMS on Google Maps) - £31.73

My choice will be the Basic Service as I do not need the tracking facility. However, I do appreciate that many will want this and let’s be honest, it is nice to log on and see where you have been.

The basic service equates to just £6.71 per month although I do not think that there is a monthly standing order option. Shame.

Do I recommend Spot

Yes, a very definite yes. However, it is not for all kayakers. It is particularly suited to those that paddle offshore; on their own; fish at night; go out for the weekend or in any extreme circumstances (winter etc.). It is not required if you just paddle off the beach. It should not be employed in isolation but should be used in tandem with VHF. I tested it to the best of my ability and it never let me down. I have no doubt that one day it will be responsible for saving a kayaker or kayak fisherman. Unfortunately, I also have no doubt one will be lost because they did not have a SPOT.

Damn, I suppose I had better send it back now.

Thanks to Paul /darnsarf of Anglers Afloat

Posts : 70
Join date : 2008-11-04
Age : 72
Location : Southampton UK

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SPOT Review Empty Further reading:

Post  KFF on Fri Dec 19, 2008 5:51 am

Last edited by KFF on Fri Dec 19, 2008 5:51 am; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : Spelling)

Posts : 70
Join date : 2008-11-04
Age : 72
Location : Southampton UK

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