EPIRB problem exposed by the powerful storm

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The strobe light on the 5-year-old GPIRB aboard the yacht Sean Seamour II blinked for less than two hours before it quit, leaving the captain and two crewmen feeling very alone when their boat sank in violent seas May 7, 2007.

The strobe light on the 5-year-old GPIRB aboard the yacht Sean Seamour II blinked for less than two hours before it quit, leaving the captain and two crewmen feeling very alone when their boat sank in violent seas May 7, 2007. Little did they know that even when their GPIRB — an EPIRB with GPS — was working, Coast Guard rescuers had dismissed its signal as a false alarm.

“It’s a miracle that I am here to talk about it,” says Jean Pierre de Lutz, owner/skipper of the Beneteau 44 cutter.

Read the other stories in this package: Death’s Door   Ten lessons learned

The miracle is that rescuers followed signals from an 11-year-old EPIRB with an expired battery. The beacon was actually washed off the stricken boat in the middle of the storm when the dodger to which it was mounted sheered off during a knockdown in huge seas. But it was the distress signal from the older 406 MHz ACR unit that eventually alerted rescue authorities that a boat was in trouble and enabled the Coast Guard to snatch the three sailors from 70-foot seas.

Since his rescue, de Lutz has been on a mission to find out why his GPIRB failed and why the Coast Guard failed to track it.

Now, a retired Coast Guardsman who works for the agency as a civilian in fishing-vessel safety and has developed an expertise in the EPIRB system thinks he has most of the answers. Larry Yarbrough says the unique internal code on de Lutz’s GPIRB was changed in the United Kingdom before the yachtsman took possession of it, making it identical to the code of a unit sold two years later in the United States.

Yarbrough says he is drafting new regulations that, if adopted by Cospas-Sarsat, the international organization governing the use of EPIRBs, would prevent a recurrence of this needle-in-a-haystack failure that nearly cost the crew of Sean Seamour II their lives.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the EPIRB system in the United States through a private contractor, acknowledges a failure in its past practices that contributed to the near tragedy and says it has already changed its procedures as a result of the Sean Seamour II case.

Early on the morning of May 7, an EPIRB transmission beamed down from a satellite over the Atlantic at 7:01 Greenwich Mean Time — 2:01 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time — and was received by watchstanders at the Rescue Coordination Center in Norfolk, Va. Calling up the registration information for that EPIRB, a watchstander saw that it was for the sailboat Lou Pantai, once owned by de Lutz. The watchstander phoned Betty de Lutz on Cape Cod, Mass., and learned her son was sailing from Florida to the Azores, but apparently not that his new boat was named Sean Seamour II.

Six minutes later, a signal was received from about the same location in the Atlantic, but from a GPIRB. A watchstander phoned Jerry Case in Theodore, Ala., the owner of the fishing boat Cold Duck to which the GPIRB was registered. Case assured the Coast Guard he was safe at home. He was asked to turn off his GPIRB.

The signal, in fact, had been from Sean Seamour II. De Lutz, seeing the damage to his boat from a violent knockdown, activated his 406 MHz ACR GPIRB — the one with the same code number as the unit on Cold Duck. Sean Seamour II’s unit kept transmitting during a subsequent capsize, sending its last signal 1 hour and 18 minutes after it was first triggered. When its signal ceased transmitting, watchstanders apparently believed it was because Case had finally turned off his unit.

Fortunately for de Lutz and his crew, the Lou Pantai 406 MHz EPIRB, purchased in 1996 and mounted on Sean Seamour II’s hard dodger, which was sheered away in the knockdown, transmitted regularly. And the same orbiting satellite recorded its position eight more times in the following seven-plus hours, leading rescuers to three men in a tattered life raft.

All EPIRBs are elements of the Cospas-Sarsat system which, Yarbrough explains, was created by a treaty between France, Russia and the United States. EPIRBs “each have a unique hexadecimal ID, a 15-character number-letter combination that’s unique to every beacon,” says Yarbrough, whom de Lutz recruited to investigate the case.

The unique code comprises three “variables,” Yarbrough says, among them a three-digit code of the country in which it is registered and a serial number, provided either by the country of registry or by the manufacturer. In the United States, Yarbrough says, manufacturers are free to create their own blocks of serial numbers. In the United Kingdom, where de Lutz purchased his GPIRB in 2002, the government at that time issued blocks of serial numbers to manufacturers, he says.

De Lutz says that after he bought his GPIRB in the U.K., he promptly registered it in the United States. Yarbrough has confirmed this through documents and says the unit de Lutz registered had an identical hexadecimal code as the one purchased two years later in the United States by Case, the owner of Cold Duck.

Yarbrough says he has documents showing that the country code on de Lutz’s U.K. GPIRB was changed by the vendor before it was shipped to him. De Lutz says the vendor knew he was going to register the unit in the States.

“I am sure that it left ACR [the manufacturer of de Lutz’s GPIRB] with a U.K. country code in it,” Yarbrough says. “The beacon Mr. de Lutz registered had a U.S. country code in it. That I know for sure,” because the code the GPIRB transmitted May 7, 2007, matched the code on de Lutz’s registration form, according to documents Yarbrough claims to have seen.

While this explains how there came to be two units with the same, supposedly unique internal code, it does not explain why NOAA failed to notice that the second registration — for Cold Duck’s unit — matched the code for an existing unit. In fact, the duplication was noticed.

“We ended up overwriting Mr. de Lutz’s registration information,” confirms Bill Burkhart, the NOAA staffer in charge of EPIRB registrations. (He says the actual work of registration is done by a contractor, Science Systems and Applications of Lanham, Md.)

“We registered that number to the different person in 2004 under the premise that each beacon has a unique ID, and therefore the beacon must have been sold,” says Burkhart.

“We should not be overwriting somebody’s information,” Burkhart continues. “We are changing our procedure.” Now, he says, “Before we go overwrite somebody’s information we will try to contact one of the two owners of that beacon” to determine whether the EPIRB has been sold. “And we’re going to try to go back through old records to see if the problem might be more than just the de Lutz case,” Burkhart says.

Yarbrough says he has already asked for a data search to look for cases similar to the Sean Seamour II and has found no other duplications of EPIRB codes.