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The universal language of saving lives at sea

Hundreds of mariners are alive today because of a small federal program that in many ways is a model for the way good government should work.

The Coast Guard-administered program, which turned 50 in July, is known primarily by its acronym, Amver — the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue system. This voluntary, international ship-reporting system enables search-and-rescue coordinators around the world to divert commercial vessels to mariners in distress. Since its inception in July 1958, Amver has saved more than 6,000 lives, a fair number of them offshore sailors and cruisers.

Last year alone, 450 people were rescued. As of this July, about 117 professional mariners, recreational sailors and others had already been hauled from harm’s way.

It’s no exaggeration to say some of those waterlogged souls wouldn’t be planning their next voyages if not for the assistance of their big-ship brethren. “Absolutely, there are people alive today because of the Amver program,” says program manager Benjamin Strong. “A thousand miles out at sea, no one has the resources to save you. It’s the only way you could be saved.”

Consider the plight this spring of a German family who were about 1,600 miles offshore en route to the Azores when their 35-foot sailboat lost its rig and rudder in a severe storm. The parents were sailing with their two children, who were 5-years-old and 18-months-old.

The sailors issued a distress alert that was overheard by the crew of a Singapore-flagged container ship. “They were in dire straits, so I said, ‘I’m coming,’ ” reported Capt. Parvez Guard, the skipper of the 980-foot Hyundai Japan.

After three attempts, the captain maneuvered his ship alongside the crippled vessel. A crewman made his way down a pilot’s ladder to the sailboat, where the parents reached out and placed their 18-month-old child safely in his arms. The other three followed, one at a time, up the ladder.

On Page 10 of this issue, you’ll read about two sailors rescued from two different sailboats on the same day by the cruise ship Norwegian Dawn, an Amver participant.

The Amver system is unusual among government programs. It’s lean, effective and more than pays for itself. The system consists of six people at the Coast Guard computer center in Martinsburg, W.Va., who handle the technical side, and two people in New York, including Strong, who recruit new ships, manage a robust awards program, and do the marketing and public relations.

“That’s it,” he says. The annual budget is about $2 million, Strong says.

In terms of cost effectiveness, consider this: “Every time we don’t have to send a Coast Guard aircraft or Coast Guard ship,” Strong says, “we save about $1 million on average.” Amver handles about 170 cases a year.

When a distress call is received, any rescue coordination system in the world can access the Amver system, determine which ships are in the proximity, and redirect the best one or ones to the emergency. In a small way, Amver has done its part to improve international relations, at least within the maritime community.

“We encourage participation from any nation or any flag,” Strong says. “That’s the key to our success. The more ships that are enrolled, the greater the likelihood that one will be available to rescue someone.”

Currently, there are about 30 Iranian-flagged ships taking part in the system.

“When there’s a disaster at sea,” Strong says, “you don’t care about the religion or the nationality of the person coming to rescue you. Safety at sea is the common denominator.”

More than 18,000 ships and about 140 nations are part of the program today. On any given day, there are more than 3,300 ships on the system’s plotting system. Over the course of a year, Amver tracks more than 100,000 voyages from its computer center in Martinsburg.

“It’s such a force multiplier, not only for our Coast Guard but for any coast guard,” says Strong.

The program’s success is due in part to the trust that has been established over the decades with mariners and shipping companies regarding the position information it collects, Strong says. The data is used only for rescue purposes and is not shared with other government agencies. “We don’t compromise the information,” he says.

That’s not to say there aren’t more bridges to build. Strong would like to see greater participation from the Chinese, who have a large fleet. Out of about 3,000 ships, only 26 to date have joined. Why the reluctance? “Perhaps it’s political,” Strong says. “We’re still the U.S. tracking ships.”

A final example: Last February, the container ship Milan Express rescued two sailors drifting on a disabled trimaran about 80 nautical miles off Costa Rica. The Bermuda-flagged container ship had to steam about 10 hours to rescue the men, who were not expecting to have to abandon their boat, which was marked as a hazard to navigation and left adrift. A difficult, disappointing end for the sailors, but one made easier by the understanding demonstrated by the ship’s captain, Adil Ghadiali.

“To his credit, Capt. Ghadiali, with abundant sensitivity and with gentle and patient persuasion, explained to us the situation we faced … [and] was able to assuage our fears and blunt the impact of the loss of our boat,” the rescued skipper reported.

There it is. One captain talking to another, sailor to sailor. Their vessels and backgrounds couldn’t be more different, but they spoke a very old, common tongue — the precise, unsentimental language of the sea, understood by watermen the world over.

“… a passage small in mileage and great in experience.” — Frank Wightman


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