THE LONERGANS WERE UNLUCKY. A recently married young couple from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, Tom and Eileen booked a diving trip in Queensland on a boat called Outer Edge.
They had recently completed work for the Peace Corps on the island of Tuvalu, and were going on to do more work in Fiji. In between, they had treated themselves to some time off to dive on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
They were an intimate couple who kept themselves to themselves, so they had no real conversations with any of the other passengers during the long journey out to Agincourt Reef.
This was probably why it went unnoticed that they were not back on board when, thinking
the diving was wrapped up, the captain set off back to the mainland.
Two days passed before it was discovered that the couple were missing – when their bag with their belongings was discovered on the boat. A huge three-day air and sea search ensued, but they were never found. Some of their diving gear was discovered washed up on a beach many miles from where they first entered the water.
Later, a fisherman came across a diver’s message slate, the type more normally used for communicating between divers under water.
Written in by-now partly obliterated pencil were the words: “Monday Jan 26. To anyone who can help us. We have been abandoned at Agincourt Reef by mv Outer Edge Jan 98 3pm. Please come to rescue us before we die. Help!!!”
How different things might have been for the Lonergans if they had been equipped with some means of contacting their boat – or any other boat, for that matter.
The Nautilus Lifeline was developed in response to such a need. We first saw it in 2010 at the international diving trade show DEMA in the USA, but it’s taken a year of field testing before the manufacturer was sure that there would be no unforeseen snags, as has been the case with a couple of other contenders in the marketplace.

The Unit
The Lifeline is a stand-alone unit that needs to work in conjunction with nothing more complicated that a boat’s marine VHF radio, and every vessel transporting divers will have one of these. The unit is autonomous – it doesn’t need to work in conjunction with any dedicated search unit.
It’s a handheld unit measuring about 14 x 9 x 6cm. On a dive it can be clipped inside a pocket or carried in a pouch worn attached to some convenient webbing. It is claimed to be watertight to 130m.
At the surface, you take it out of its pouch, flip over a lid held closed by a clam-catch, and are confronted by an aerial that springs straight out, and three switches in the form of coloured buttons.
The green button allows you to use the unit like a straightforward portable VHF DSC (Digital Selective Calling) radio. You need to predetermine the channel you are going to use with your boat’s radio operator, and the default setting is Channel 08.
You press to speak and release to listen. The microphone and speaker is on top of the unit next to the buttons. It can be quite noisy low down in the waves, so you might not be able to hear a response properly. You press and hold the button until ‘T’ is displayed on the LCD, and then you talk.
The problem is, how are you going to describe where you are to a boat that might be searching for you Well, you read your GPS position, as displayed on the LCD on the side of the Nautilus Lifeline.
What happens if your boat’s radio operator has lost the plot, gone below and left someone else in charge who may not realise it’s you calling What happens if, as with Outer Edge, your dive boat has set off without you and is well over the horizon
In that case you use the orange button to send out a general hail or distress call on Channel 16 to any boat you might be able to see. I’m not proud. I’ll get on any boat if mine’s no longer there – and it’s happened.
You won’t care who answers your call under such circumstances, and you have the GPS position to tell them exactly where you are.
What happens if, God forbid, you come to the surface after a dive and there’s no boat in sight In such a dire emergency you can set the Lifeline to broadcast your GPS position as it changes due to wind or tide or current.
It will send out an emergency message together with your Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) number and your position on Channel 70 (emergency use only). You press and hold the red Lifeline button until the LCD reads “Distress Mode On”. You need do nothing more. It will automatically broadcast for up to 24 hours with a fully charged battery.
Once the emergency is over, simply press and hold that red button again until “Distress Mode Off” appears on the LCD.
It’s not something you can “test”, because it’s for emergency use only and there are severe penalties for improper activation.

Setting Up
Before you set up the Nautilus Lifeline it is necessary to set up the unit with your MMSI number, obtainable by going to and getting the diver registration software.
You do this by connecting the unit to an online computer’s USB socket with the short cable provided. A watertight plug in the top of the unit gives access to its mini USB port. Thoughtfully, the cable comes with a spare plug too. They know about divers and realise that plugs go missing!
The regulations regarding the use of MMSI vary from territory to territory, so check what the rules are before you find yourself in deep water. The Lifeline button is not functional until it has been registered.
You can use the USB cable connection to change the frequency setting for the green Chat button, although you can also do this on board the boat by pressing the green button three times in quick succession. This will allow you to scroll through the available channels.
Holding down the green button confirms the choice. It’s most likely to my mind that you’ll be asking the captain of your boat which channel he would prefer.
The USB connection is also used to charge the battery, which the manufacturer suggests you do at least every year. The LCD has an icon that indicates the state-of-charge of the battery and the number of satellites from which the GPS is reading, along with the other information.

In the Water
The Achilles heel of so many of these emergency solutions has always proved to be their ability to go diving and survive. Like a fire extinguisher, you hope never to have to use it but when you do you want to be sure that it’ll work.
Once you’ve flipped the top open, the unit is only splash-proof, so you need to keep it above the waves. As VHF radio works by line of sight you have to hold it as high as possible to get it to work well.
If you need glasses for reading yet have no sight-correction lenses in your mask, it could be a problem to read the LCD to use it in Chat mode, although the LCD is as clear to read as it could be.
What matters is that this routine use of the device for chatting diver-to-boat will prove that it is still in working order.
So far so good – but there is a snag. The dream of taking this unit anywhere in the world and using it as a lifeline is rather spoiled by overseas government rules. I took the following from the licensing authority website in the UK:
“You must have a separate Ship Portable Radio Licence for each hand-held VHF DSC radio. This is because each individual radio is given a separate identity.
“The apparatus must not be used outside UK territorial sea. So, it cannot be covered by a normal Ship Radio Licence, as this does not impose any territorial restrictions.
“If you already have a Ship Portable Radio Licence, you should ensure that it includes hand-held VHF DSC. If it does not, you can change it online, free of charge.”
So it seems that use of this incredibly useful item of equipment is to be denied to private world travellers. It will be down to individual dive-boat operators in various territories to sort out local legalities and make it available to us.
In the meantime, it seems that units bought in the UK by British nationals for private use will be limited to use in home waters and “you must hold at least the Short Range Certificate to use hand-held VHF DSC, just like any VHF DSC radio.”
If you have no licence, you’ll need to do an approved course first. These cost around £100 per head, plus a licence certification fee of £30 payable to the Royal Yachting Association.
Presumably, the Lonergans, as Americans, would have been unlikely to have carried a Nautilus Lifeline, even had it been available at the time, as they were in Australian waters.

None with Chat mode.

PRICE £252
BATTERY Rechargeable
LCD GPS position
MODES Chat, Hail & Distress, Lifeline
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