Panbo

The Passive Radar Reflector Solution for Sailboats

... written for Panbo by Dan Corcoran and posted on Jul 21, 2011
EchoMax_230I_radar_reflector_courtesy_Dan_Corcoran.jpg

July 2006, Block Island Sound is enveloped in patchy fog, two radar-equipped sailboats pass within 20 feet after failing to detect each other despite calm waters. Neither vessel had a radar reflector hoisted. July 2009, chaos on Block Island Sound as fog descends on hundreds of recreational boaters, skippers constantly calling out on VHF 9 & 16 in attempts to avoid collision. A ferry and a coast guard ship actually do collide. In the melee, just 1 of every 35 boats is sporting a radar reflector. July 2010, dozens of boats make their way through hours of heavy rain and thunderstorms into Nantucket Island, and only 2 have radar reflectors.  May 30, 2011, 30 sailboats travel in heavy fog across Long Island Sound from Huntington to Saugatuck, the heavy fog was forecast...the number of boats sporting radar reflectors...just one.
   Geez, when did safety slip to the bottom of sailor's priority list?  Are radar reflectors so difficult to use?  Too confusing maybe?   Or is there an overall lack of faith they are worth the effort to hoist?  

It seems like nearly all sailors in the Northeast fail to use their radar reflectors. On foggy days in the northeast USA I have observed, at most, 1 in 35 sailboats sporting a radar reflector, and among them most had severe limitations being fixed mount, too small, not kept level, and more than half a combination of all three limitations. Comparatively, 90% of over 50 sailors I informally surveyed, claim to own a radar reflector, in a locker, somewhere. 100% of them described a Davis or Davis-like design. 0% have used them.

Well, no more excuses!  The Echomax 230 I Inflatable passive radar reflector is an easy to deploy reflector with no sharp edges, no confusing instructions, and although big, is so soft and cuddly you can leave it up in your rigging days on end without worries and be assured, when bad weather appears, the radar cross section of your sailboat becomes significantly increased making it easier to be seen by others around you.

This product was designed for use on a life raft after storage in a ditch bag, but I have found that it overcomes the barriers to continuous use of reflectors on sailboats, as proven on my sailboat after five seasons and 3400 nm of sailing in the Northeast.

There are numerous articles written about passive radar reflectors defining how performance should be measured, limitations of various designs, and some exposing that various products are entirely or partially ineffective. Not too much new has been written recently. The articles going back to 1991 could be summed up as follows: 

  • Radar reflectors don't provide a uniform reflection around their perimeter; there are high and low points around a 360 degree arc, for instance.
  • Radar reflector performance is measured as radar cross-section (RCS) in square meters. An RCS of 10 is considered to be an acceptable value for reflection performance, the point at which another ship's radar will reliably paint a protected boat on an operator's display.
  • There is no substitute for having a big radar reflector as no fancy design (yet discovered) can enable a small radar reflector to be as effective as a larger one. The result is that reflectors that are large enough to deliver an RCS of 10 across much of a 360 degree arc around your boat, need to be of sizes like 16 inches round or larger.
  • Even at these sizes, the majority of products on the market don't achieve a minimum acceptable level of RCS > 10 in all directions around the boat without some degree of care by the owner to maintain correct orientation. 
  • Various fancy designs are better overall across a 360 degree arc than others. Such designs known as "octahedral-type reflectors" mounted in the "double catch rain position" are measured to be the most uniform around a 360 degree arc and therefore, make your boat more likely to be seen.
  • The David Echomaster is an example of such a design, but it becomes ineffective if tilted even a few degrees from the double catch rain position, as the reflected radar energy is greatly reduced. (Page 28, Report on the investigation and loss of the sailing yacht Ouzo, Marine accident investigation branch, United Kingdom, April 2007).

It was in fact the David Echomaster I decided on in 2006 for my new 39 foot sailboat. It had the prerequisite of being large, had the best overall performance, and I convinced myself I could keep it in the double catch rain position so it would be effective. I kept it stored in a locker folded up in the protective plastic pouch it comes in, ready to be deployed.

And there it sat and I never used it. Each time I should have, it remained in the locker. Either I had too many other things to attend to during bad weather, it was unsafe for me to be on deck or I was in the state of mind that I could use my own radar to keep distance between me and the other boats nearby.  Three near collisions later, I was nervous. I purchased an active radar reflector at a West Marine closeout, but then returned it due to the difficulty in installation, its weight and the serious limitations it had interacting with more than one radar at close range.

That winter I began to seriously look at my original second choice, an EchoMax 230. I originally didn't like that the product was huge and that the best position to mount it was forward of my mast where it would disrupt the wind from attaching to the mainsail. Also the weight of the reflector and mounts aloft were undesirable. But, it had no sharp edges and could be left up all the time, insuring that it would be used when needed.

Breeze_Pleeze_off_Camden_lores.jpg

As I was checking the vendor's site for a purchase, I came across the EchoMax 230 I inflatable. It was designed for inclusion in a ditch bag, to be inflated in an emergency on board a life raft. It sounded ideal for hoisting on a flag halyard as I had originally planned for the Davis product, but absent sharp edges meant I could leave it in the rigging unattended whenever I was underway, good weather or bad. This would have many advantages:

  • I could hoist it at the start of every cruising trip, and with a line run from the bottom of the reflector to the deck, change it's angle to match the heel of my boat to keep level with the horizon.
  • Unlike a fixed mast mount, it would not disturb air on the leading edge of my mainsail (reducing sailing performance).
  • Good weather or poor, sailing or motoring, my sailboat would be visible to other ships radar.

I emailed the manufacturer telling them this was how I would use it, and if they thought it was durable enough that I could get at least a year out of it. I was told my application was unique, but they would warranty it for a year if I would underinflate it so there is room to expand on hot days.

What a difference, although its big (size is of tantamount importance) I actually used it all season and was comfortable leaving it up full time. This inflatable:

  • was used 100% of the time in bad weather from 2007 through its fifth season on board this year. This is due in large part to the little effort required to set it up as part of my routine before setting sail, effectively insuring it's just there when conditions of night or fog come to pass. Also, with the soft sides it feels non-threatening to set it up.
  • although made out of plastic, it appears no worse for the wear in its fifth seasons, even though it has been up there in some pretty violent winds, thunderstorms, and was accidentally left up in October 2007 during a brutal nor-easter (having forgotten to take it down).
  • being an "octahedral-type reflector" mounted in the "double catch rain position", provides the best of the various designs available for passive radar reflector. (e.g. 360 degree coverage arc)
  • is fairly easy to keep in the required vertical position when sailing by moving a lead from the bottom of the reflector to various positions in the rigging, and it stays in that vertical position during pretty strong winds. 
  • positioned off the flag halyard, it doesn't interfere with the wind going across my sails as it would have in a fixed mount, and has never become tangled with my rigging.
  • When I queried various vessels underway, including ferries, tow boats, tug boats, and recreational powerboats, they all replied that my sailboat was visible on their radar. I received that same positive response from ferries during heavy rain off Nantucket in 2009, in conditions when radar performance is very poor with limited ranges of only a couple miles.
  • In rendezvous with Gizmo last week, Ben was able to compare my sailboat with and without the reflector raised, using a Raymarine HD radar. He was able to confirm the reflector is effective in making Breeze Pleeze more noticable on radar, even with five years of use (the reflector was designed to be stored until needed). In our rendezvous I was next to a large buoy, then out among other sailboats one mile, two, then many miles from Gizmo. In our tests the reflector was partially deflated (to allow room to expand when warm), was 15 feet above the deck hanging from a flag halyard (see picture), and was tilted about 5-10 degrees due to the angle of the wind across the deck. (maximum reflection is achieved when it is level)

The only faults I can find with EchoMax 230 I is a need for lateral reinforcement for continuous use (which is easily added with a bit of line between top and bottom as illustrated in this PDF), better labeling (how about writing "reflector" in big letters) so other mariners understand what it is, and the warranty is far too short considering it looks like new after five years and a dozen storms. In the area of faults, the marketing is awful, the manufacturer grossly missed the mark when targeting this product for emergency grab bags for life rafts.

Without a doubt, this product is a superb solution for the common sailboat and belongs up in the rigging of most every sailboat from the moment it is underway if there is any chance of poor weather. 

- Dan Corcoran is an avid sailor and leads ServiceSPAN, a back office work center automation technology company. {That's his sloop Breeze Pleeze as a solid MARPA target on Gizmo's radar.}

Breeze_Pleeze_off_Camden_screen_shot.jpg

Comments

I have the The Firdell Blipper model on our sailboat, although this model tesing turns our to be disappointing we do not sail in an area that has much fog...Miami, FL...
Here is a link to an old but very detailed test done on many radar reflectors...
http://offshore.ussailing.org/Assets/Offshore/SAS+Studies/radar+reflector+tests.pdf

Posted by: Jeffrey at July 20, 2011 8:45 AM | Reply

I wouldn't claim our testing was definitive, but I definitely saw Dan's radar target weaken and then strengthen again when he doused and then reset the EchoMax 230I. We did it at one mile and then again at two, and the Raymarine RD418HD held onto its MARPA target for a long time as we drove away in opposite directions.

Breeze Pleeze also looked bigger than nearby boats, even though she wasn't, and that's a good thing! As I once yakked about in a magazine article about radar reflectors: http://goo.gl/oSJPB

At any rate, I think Dan's done great work identifying a product that overcomes some of the problems of smaller reflectors and proving that it holds up even though it wasn't really intended for this use. Thanks, Dan!

Posted by: Ben at July 20, 2011 10:05 AM | Reply

I consider the MAB report on Ouzo to be definitive. Since then there have been some half hearted attempts to justify other products, with little effect on the market. Why are so few sailboats flying these reflectors? Because inadequate is no better than useless.

When a product passes the rigourous testing defined in the Ouzo report, I will buy it. But anecdotal evidence doesn't get it.

Dan I like your work and respect your opinion, but did you ask those tug captains if any other sailboats were visible?

And I doubt an average work-horse tug or thirty year old ferry is going to maintain the radar capabilities of Gizmo. Hell, we can't get many of them to install AIS!

Posted by: Sandy Daugherty at July 20, 2011 10:34 AM | Reply

I seem to remember a group test some years ago that concluded that a trash bag full of rumpled aluminium foil , hoisted up , was as good as the better refectors

Dave

Posted by: Dave at July 20, 2011 11:11 AM | Reply

I have a motor yacht but Dan's evidence convinces me. Although I'm sure my boat has a bigger radar reflection ability that the average sail boat I've had times when we have not shown up on another vessels' radar. Our AIS signal was the only indication they had of our presence.
I've ordered a Echomax and I'll report back after a few months of using it.

Posted by: Fishwife at July 20, 2011 11:32 AM | Reply

Sandy wrote "Dan I like your work and respect your opinion, but did you ask those tug captains if any other sailboats were visible?"

Glad you asked, in fact I did. In all of six unrelated communications (with professional working boats) I have been told either I appeared “larger than I should" for a sailboat, larger than nearby boats, “strong”, or some combination of the three. In each instance it was in good weather.

I also have experience in bad weather, weather that dramatically increases the challenge of being seen on radar, and I credit this reflector in combination with carefully using my own radar for enabling safe passage.

The best example, my family was most unhappy with. I got us caught in continuous rain and heavy thunderstorms traveling 20nm from Hyannis, MA to Nantucket in July 2009. Although not fun, it provided me an important data point as the rain was really heavy, the seas were 4 feet, and nearby fast ferries would confirm we are visible and in one case mistook us for another ferry.

The heavy rain impaired my own radar, a 2kw 18” dome at the time, limiting my range to two miles before becoming all noise, within the two mile range it barely showed a 30 foot power boat 500 yards to the east on a course parallel to me. The ferries however were unmistakable on radar, out to about 2 miles. Unable to see the bow of my boat in the afternoon rain, I was near panic when the first northbound ferry approached quickly and head on, closing half the distance it was visible on the radar in half a minute. I hailed her on VHF, and received a confirmation I was visible on her radar, the powerboat however was not. After finding how friendly these folks can be, I made a point to talk to each ferry as it approached and scooted over a 1/4 mile east of the apparent path the ferries were following. Although I was no longer in the way after moving east, a northbound ferry would later reprimanded “me” (identified my boat relative to the position of a nearby buoy) for not answering on another VHF channel and for not following the correct company course. The confusion ended in apology and remark that he believed my boat was another ferry from his company based on a strong return from the radar.

I can’t emphasize enough, that size matters when it comes to these radar reflectors and this reflector is quite large.

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at July 20, 2011 3:07 PM | Reply

I've been using the Lensref 8" diam. reflector for a long time, and with good success. Sadly it is no longer made, but they ARE effective reflectors to use for a sailboat heeled at any angle. Maine fog is often thick and this reflector has done well, judging from reports I get from all kinds of vessels that can easily see me on their radar. The design is unusual: a very compact and wind-resistant sphere.

Posted by: Rob Beebe / SY Acorn at July 20, 2011 4:36 PM | Reply

Hi Sandy,
We were sent the MAIB report before it was published for our comments as my EM230 was one of those tested. Following our comments they altered three or four of their statements but there were still other opinions expressed which we did not agree with, here are some of them.
The EM230 tested had no serial number so was more than 6 years old and was not of latest design. We started numbering the units as soon as we obtained the Ships Wheel Mark in September 2005. The MAIB rang many chandlers to get them to check their stock to verify that all stock on the shelves were numbered. They refused to make this note on the published report.
They refused to acknowledge John Firths,the echomax inventors preferred method of fitting for sailing yachts which was suspension from the cross trees of halyard which enables compensation at heel and virtually eliminates mast shadow. Their answer being we supply mast brackets which are requested by the public, our dealers and sold by our competitors.
Our website and literature states the clear advantages of suspension.
The MAIB/OUSO conclusion that the Trilens was the best reflector was surprising bearing in mind it had virtually half the SPL in the vertical whereas the EM230 had a SPL of 4.7M2. All motor vessels and cats are positioned around the vertical so how can a reflector with half the response be the best one for these craft? Had the MAIB taken on board John Firths preferred fitting for sailing craft then virtually all the 4.7M2 would have been available for sailing yachts. Recent tests by one of our popular sailing magazines found that there was no discernable difference at heel. In this test the EM230 came out best buy as it was still responding at 7.3 miles when they ceased the trails.
The MAIB refused to acknowledge that the Echomax symmetrical array excites during real sea conditions. This fact was well documented in the MCA/QinetiQ sea trials in January 02 where the EM230 at 5 miles plus recorded 100% paints at X band and 80% plus at S band. QinetiQ stated that the S band results defied all the laws of physics and at their request two further EM230 were sent to their anechoic chamber for testing which confirmed the sea trial results. This was attributed to John Firths 'Glint effect' which is a reaction of the phases, rather like the mirror on the hill scenario.
Echomax is one of the very few radar reflector manufacturers in the world to publish independent data on each and every product it makes.
The EM230-400 are taken regularly by the US Navy and other foreign navies for target use. The EM305PE is fitted by the US Nuclear Subs, Hawaii.
Regds John

Posted by: John Simpson in reply to Sandy Daugherty at July 20, 2011 5:50 PM | Reply

There is also the following report published by MAIB but carried out by QinetiQ:
http://www.maib.gov.uk/cms_resources.cfm?file=/Radar%20reflectors%20report.pdf
The preface says that it also was created following the Ouzo accident but this is a radar reflector for pleasure craft comparison, not an accident report.
This test also includes an electronic X-band radar target enhancer (RTE), the Sea-me, which compares favorably to all passive reflectors, especially in that it is less affected by angles of heel.
Since the report, 3 other models of RTE have entered the market so that there are now two models each from the manufacturers Sea-me and Echomax. Each company offers a X-band only model and a combined X- and S-band model.
A yachtig magazine (unfortunately I can't find it right now, it would have been either Yachting Monthly or Sailing Today) tested the X-band models of both manufacturers against each other and found the Echomax superior because it has equal or better RCS but significantly less power consumption. There is no test that I know of of the combined X- and S-band models.
An RTE, apparently, should go on a sailboat's mast top (not sure exactly why but it seems they all are). With a passive reflector, that is probably not the best location because it is waving around too much so the return, while it may be good, apprears in different places on subsequent scans of the radar and therefore, may fall victim to seaclutter suppression.
Mounting it on deck level is not recommended either, for reasons of range, so the truth is probably somewhere in between, wich, on a sailboat, would mean something like halfway up the mast.
A passive reflector that is hidden behind metal, like a mast, is ineffective, no matter it's RCS.
Given all this, I can see why Dan's setup works well (halfway up the mast, away from the mast, large) but still I would much prefer a fixed mount close to the mast on my own boat.
From the reports above and the tests that I know of, I have concluded that in order to be more or less sure to be seen, you must carry an electronic RTE.
As everything electronic can fail, you are well advised to also have a passive reflector but this is intended as a backup.
My criteria for a passive reflector are:
- because of it's function as a backup, it does not have to offer the highest RCS
- It should work well when mounted directly to the mast
- It's performance should be affected by heel as little as possible
- I will accept low performance but it must be reliable performance
This is why I am planning on a Trilens Standard size mounted to the foward side of the mast, halfway up. The Trilens extends outside of the mast profile so I expect resonable performance even with a radar looking at me from dead astern.
This will go with an Echomax X-S-band RTE.
The RTE will go on the mast top. There is an expensive but nifty combined anchor- and tricolor LED navigation light by Hella Marine (http://www.hellamarine.com/default.asp?a=3&t=3&View=FullStory&productID=792&pcid=191) that allows another device to be mounted on top of it and the cables of the other device to pass through the center of the light. I think this would work with the RTE and this will avoid problems with partially blocking the light with the RTE.

Posted by: Henning at July 23, 2011 5:04 AM | Reply

I recently purchased a motor cruiser in Wales and brought it to France.
The first thing I did before leaving was to fit a Echomax 230 (rigid not inflatable).
This purchase decision was made following months of research including reading the Ouzo Report.
I am amazed at the number of boats that do not have radar reflectors fitted or rely upon the cheap (and totally ineffective) tubular products. Despite being described as such in the Qinetic report, this reflector is still on sale in most chandleries in Europe.

Posted by: Roger B at July 23, 2011 10:08 AM | Reply

Does a 46' aluminum sailboat with a tall carbon fiber mast and aluminum radar mast need a passive reflector?

Posted by: Michael at July 23, 2011 6:10 PM | Reply

A question for Dan,

Have you had a look at / considered, the active reflectors.

As Henning mentioned above, Echomax & Sea-Me now both have dual X- & S-band active reflectors (RTEs). Looking at the spec.s for power usage, they both look fairly low draws: the Echomax product spec.s from 23mA up to 200mA draw, depending on how many radar "hits" you are experiencing. The PBO magazine test linked through the Echomax website says that 5 active radar hits draws about 23mA from the single X-band device, 10 draws 32mA, etc. To me that seems like a pretty low current draw for the huge extra safety gained. Even at an average 40mA draw, the device is only drawing 1Ahr every 24 hours - seems like a no-brainer to me.

And, if combined with an AIS transceiver, I would think it would create a "hard to miss" envelope.

If you did look at RTEs, why did you dismiss them? And would you reconsider them given current products (the Echomax products were not around when you installed your passive device).

BTW, thanks for bringing this topic back up. We've been sailing without a reflector because all the testing I had read convinced me that they weren't worth bothering with. I think that with the newer products (esp RTEs), there are now products that make it silly not to have one up all the time. We'll be putting an Echomax Active-XS on our boat, with a backup inflatable such as you use.

Cheers,
Paul.

Posted by: Taniwha at July 25, 2011 3:06 AM | Reply

Taniwha/Paul : As I wrote above (more detail here), I purchased an active radar reflector (See-Me) at a West Marine closeout (at $49, it was practically free in 2006), but then returned it (buyer’s remorse) due to the difficulty in installation (many), its weight (including cables) and the serious limitations it had interacting with more than one radar at close range. I am not familiar with how RTE’s improved in the last two years.

While I am not inclined to think about RTE for myself since the Echomax inflatable is doing it for me, I applaud your interest in including a reflector/RTE solution for your boat AND a transceiver based (not just receiver) AIS. More boats need to be equipped with this safety gear.

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) in reply to Taniwha at July 25, 2011 12:25 PM | Reply

Hi Dan,

Thanks for your reply.

Sorry for the redundancy in the question: I had read that post of your, but then I got engrossed with the report in the link that you posted, and then with the Echomax & Sea-Me websites, and by the time I wrote the post I had forgotten about your comments on the Sea-Me(that's one of the dangers in skipping around a few different websites whilst researching a topic).

Thanks for posting a great topic and discussion starter.

Cheers,
Paul.

P.S. our yacht's name is Taniwha, hence the user name.

Posted by: Taniwha in reply to Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at July 25, 2011 9:16 PM | Reply

SOLAS does not distinguish between metal, wooden or glass fibre vessels. When viewed from the bowes or stern the vessel would have a very low radar cross section so it would be wise to ignore the composition of the hull and for safety sake fit a passive reflector with the largest possible RCS and also an RTE if budget permits.

Posted by: john simpson in reply to Michael at July 27, 2011 1:23 AM | Reply

I have a question... I own a 40ft steel trawler with a 14ft beam and 24ft mast. The entire thing is made of steel. Do I still need a radar reflector? I frequently cruise near the major shipping lanes in the Great Lakes and I always wondered how visible I was to commercial traffic.
I just always assumed that a big steel box would have a pretty significant radar return.
Curious...

Posted by: Alabtross at July 27, 2011 4:54 PM | Reply

Message for Albatross/Alabtross
The radar signature of a vessel is governed by the number of radar emmissions that are received back by the interrogating radar. If the radar is fitted with ARPA then you need a hit rate of 50% plus to be shown on the radar screen. Beam on the vessel may have a radar image of several hundred or thousand M2 but this will be a spiked image and not neccessarily a consistent one. However the same vessel with a sleek bow or stern and slanting cabin may only have a very limited radar image when viewed bowes or stern on. I only know of one sea trial where a small glass fibre sailing yacht had a beam on spikey inconsistent image of around a hundred M2 but its bowes on was limited to single figures. The responses were generated from the cooker,engine and mast etc.
A vessels radar image can easily be tested by approaching a known vessel from about 8-10 miles to see when and what appears on their radar screen.To test the stern response you would steam away from the interrogating radar. This is how the benefits of a passive reflector or RTE can be seen. Stealth bombers are very large but have virtually no radar image as none of the radar signals are returned to the transmitting radar. Likewise the US nuclear subs although 300ft steel objects are basically like large tubes so have a very low radar image when surfaced.
Perhaps a word of caution that all sea trials are subjective and weather and sea state can vary the results substantially at any given time. No two tests will be the same.
Re Michaels Mast radar reflection image

An aluminium mast in a vertical position would give some radar reflective response however at heel would have none. I know of no tests that have been carried out on carbon fibre but suspect it would respond with same qualities as alluminium.

Posted by: john simpson at July 28, 2011 3:53 AM | Reply

Here's another vote for AIS transponder. We have sailed with one now for 18 months. We also have a radar and use it in conditions of reduced vis. We usually see other sailboats at least 3 miles away and often they do not have radar relectors.

I have not tried an inflatable radar reflector but would like to see a much more definitive test before buying one. So many great looking designs of passive reflectors have turned out to be not very effective (such as the tube ones). The Sea Me active one is commonly used here in Europe where I would guess that more than 50% of boats have some form of reflector.

But nowadays the ships are relying more on AIS and offshore in any kind of seaway I think all passive radar reflectors are going to be largely ineffective. Why not get an AIS transponder? Not so expensive and ALL ships will see you guaranteed.

Posted by: paul shard at July 28, 2011 5:37 AM | Reply

I think the best way to determine and understand your own visibility would be to have someone else take your boat to see and you follow in a boat with a similar radar setup. Nothing would prove more valuable than "seeing yourself as others see you", because I think general statements about visibility to radar have to be understood selectively.

You may find, for instance, that at certain angles of heel and bearing, your boat "paints" well and effectively vanishes at others. Knowing this, you could take action to "reveal" yourself to traffic.

Or you could get an AIS, I suppose.

I have a steel pilothouse with a fairly high aft deck. While I "paint" quite well, as expected, I can see how in heavy seas, my cambered deck and relatively modest aluminum mast might not reflect as well as I assume to be.

Posted by: Marc Dacey in reply to Michael at August 8, 2011 2:58 PM | Reply

Some additional thoughts:

1) Paul implied we just use AIS, really? I don’t believe AIS is a substitute for a good radar reflector and that his experience at usually seeing sailboats at 3 miles in reduced vis, is normal. Maybe Paul is an exceptionally talented radar user, has a BR24 or Raymarine HD, or maybe reduced vis is just light rain and seas less than 3 feet? I feel AIS won’t help a sailboat such as mine to avoid collisions with other boats that don’t use AIS, as a passive reflector would. I consider the use of all three (radar, a passive reflector, and AIS) as complimentary with little overlap in achieving my goals of collision avoidance. For example the AIS transceiver on my boat does little to help me avoid collisions with recreational vessels under 40 feet that don’t have one.

2) I had a great conversation with John Simpson after the article was published and received some interesting insights and issues around the world. (Thanks John). He is not entirely comfortable with my recommendation, one of the reasons they don’t promote this product for everyday use (only emergencies) is that it isn’t puncture resistant. Mine doesn't have a scratch after five years, and is less fragile I think than my old metal Davis. Would you all agree with me that puncture resistance is not a necessary trait of a radar reflector? Would that be a concern for anyone?

3) John believes RTE’s are a much better solution for sailboats, especially those without the ability to power a radar. I scoffed at that initially (due to cost, just use a passive + AIS was my answer), but John justified his position well. As valuable as it is to have your own radar for use in collision avoidance, many sailboats don’t have the power available to do so, and in those cases an RTE offers additional valuable benefits over a passive reflector. John pointed out that RTE gives you an alert that other boats are nearby painting you with X or S band radar, RTE requires much less power than a radar, and the far greater intensity will reliably be detected by another ships radar on every sweep, insuring your boat appears on radar sets that use ARPA. After speaking with John, I suppose if I didn't have a radar I would seriously consider RTE.

4) A commenter above suggested doing a boat swap? Really? I can’t see how you would get an objective measure of your boats viability on radar thru such efforts, and wouldn’t your day just be better spent enjoying your boat? If professional testing organizations are challenged to test on the water (which has lead to many confusing results being published over the years) you and I don’t stand a chance. The primary issue is that our radar sets don’t report back a number value we can read of the radar energy returned and compare that to the recommended amount to be seen in bad weather. What we do know is that virtually all recreational boats are below half the recommended radar cross section performance for a passive reflectors. Within reason, none of us have any reason to believe our boat is an exception. Even forty foot metal hulled recreational boats don’t reflect 10 square meters in all directions, for example in the arc from 0-80 degrees either side of the bow, I would suspect the curved surfaces of a metal boat are rather stealthy as they reflect radar energy out to the side, into the water, or sky.

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at August 10, 2011 4:09 PM | Reply

I agree with John Simpson. An RTE is the most effective way to announce our presence. AIS B will alert Solas Vessels over 300T and give our position, heading and course on even the oldest AIS A units, but smaller vessels are a threat. We are still assuming they have radar. I believe that a passive reflector does more harm than good by giving crews a false assurance of safety. It only has to be inadequate one time to make a tragedy.

Side note; I had a customer who was adamant that his radar would be seen by big ships. Some how safety information manages to get garbled even among those with enough earning power to buy a boat.

Sandy Daugherty
Retired NTSB Accident Investigator

Posted by: Sandy Daugherty at August 10, 2011 7:40 PM | Reply

Hi Dan,
Yes we do have a fair bit of experience with radar but are by no means experts. And we do actually have an 18" Raymarine HD Digital radar so perhaps it is that much more more effective than regular radars. But I still recommend a See-Me or equivalent RTE if you really want to be seen on other people's radar. Almost no power to run and not that much money.

More and more people are getting an AIS receiver so why wouldn't you add a Class B transponder. Then they will see you.

As Sandy Daugherty says, if you hoist an inflatable radar reflector you are still hoping someone has a radar and is actually looking at it. Get an AIS transponder and you know all ships will see you - plus an increasing number of yachts as well.

Posted by: paul shard at August 11, 2011 4:11 AM | Reply

Paul, a Raymarine HD Digital Radar! That is much better than a regular radar, and explains your experience to “usually see sailboats within 3 miles”. In your eyes there may not seem to be a benefit to a passive reflector. Regular radars are not that good.

I also have the HD digital also, and for collision avoidance, I rank this or any other radar as my number one tool, mostly because my greater fear is to be hit by a yacht (rather than a ship) without radar or an attentive helmsman.

I do already use an AIS transceiver as well, yet you will find this reflector up in my rigging whenever visibility is reduced and even on most clear day’s because it is no hassle at all to use, and even with great radar, I can’t just run away from every approaching yacht to avoid collisions. We all have responsibilities to hold our course in many passing situations, and need yachts with regular radar to see us also.

I also have to admit (to Sandy), I do get a cheap thrill when other ships avoid me and I can instead hold my course and get where I am going in a straight line.

Sandy, you wrote that a passive reflector “does more harm than good” as it “provides a false sense of security” I guess you can go there, but can’t that same line of reasoning, a false sense of security, be carried over to an RTE or any safety gear as well? Is that a reason not to purchase one? Or, is your comment really based on a disbelief in my review? If Ben can pass you my cell phone number, give me a call as I would really like to give your point of view a fair listen, as I have John Simpson’s.

Speaking about John, he has urged me to write that his RTE product is the only RTE approved by the FCC in the USA. I had purchased (and later returned) his competitor’s product not realizing it wasn't legal, I guess that could happen to anyone, but relax John, that is probably very rare.

Back to the passive product I use above, there is an element of cost in all this. While not an inexpensive cheap thrill as my last safety recommendation, at $180 what’s not to like about this passive radar reflector that you will actually use (rather than leaving in a storage locker), and will do better than double radar visibility of a 40 foot cruising sailboat in clear weather, and in seas taller than your boats deck, make the difference between being seen or not being seen at all?

Posted by: Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at August 11, 2011 12:48 PM | Reply

I use both an echo-master on the halyard, and a tri-radial on the mast. What is the consensus for using two radar reflectors? I have heard some comment that there could be destructive interference, but I do not believe this to be the case if they ar separated by more than several feet.

Regard,

Bob

Posted by: Anonymous in reply to Dan Corcoran (b393capt) at August 12, 2011 7:04 PM | Reply

There could be interference, both destructive and constructive, even if they are well separated. But does it matter? There is no simple answer to this.
Even the direct return from a radar reflector and the return which bounces off the water surface can interfere. Here are some links for you:
http://www.theradarreflectorsite.org/WebManuscript/PREFACE.pdf
http://www.theradarreflectorsite.org/WebManuscript/CHAPTER%202.pdf

Posted by: norse at August 14, 2011 3:02 PM | Reply

Leave a comment