Skip to main content

Niña report cites texts, satellite technology

An independent review of the search for Niña, the classic yacht that was lost with seven crewmembers more than a year ago on the Tasman Sea, has found that the New Zealand rescue authority did all it should have done — and more — to try to find the 84-foot schooner, but it recommends the agency learn to use satellite technology more effectively in its searches.

The search for the yacht showed that improvements needed to be made in the use of satellite technology in trying to find missing vessels.

The review, released July 17, recommends, among other things, that the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand reach memoranda of understanding with Iridium and other satellite communication service providers to allow the timely release of data that would aid their search-and-rescue efforts and work with international organizations tasked with overseeing search and rescue in a “comprehensive analysis and evaluation” of how satellite imagery can assist in SAR.

“Using the lessons learned from the Niña search, this issue [satellite images] should be raised,” writes David Baird, former general manager of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Emergency Response Division. “There is a body of work that needs to be done in order for the maritime SAR community to gain confidence and understanding as to exactly what satellite imagery can bring to solving [the] SAR equation.”

Over 11 days, New Zealand Air Force P-3K2 Orion aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art radar, other fixed-wing aircraft and a helicopter searched more than 737,000 square miles of the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia, as well as along the west coast of New Zealand and the shoreline of Lord Howe and Norfolk islands. Baird concludes that the RCCNZ complied with its own standard operating procedures and with international SAR conventions in carrying out the search. “RCCNZ went further in effort, resource allocation, consultation and duration than many of the other highly regarded SAR authorities would have done,” he writes. “This is particularly so when considering the effort made by RCCNZ to cooperate and assist the private search carried out by the families and their search coordinator.”

Following suspension of the June-July 2013 search, families of Niña’s crew undertook a privately funded search and used crowd sourcing through Tomnod — a project owned by the Colorado-based satellite company DigitalGlobe — to identify objects in satellite images to give searchers targets to look for. But Baird said the images were too old, in some cases 30 days; not high enough definition to really see what they were; and were “analyzed” by non-professionals — the volunteers who gave their time to pore over thousands of images in search of the yacht, its wreckage or life raft.

“Once the images had been through the Tomnod process, [Texas EquuSearch, the non-profit that coordinated the private search] brought them to the attention of RCCNZ as being new information that required reactivation of the search,” Baird says. “RCCNZ engaged NZ defense experts to analyze satellite pictures provided by TES. None of this analysis could provide a conclusive opinion that the images were the Niña.”

The rescue agency decided not to reactivate the search based on the crowd-sourced satellite images, causing considerable friction between the agency and the families.

The agency’s relationship with Iridium also was strained at times. Baird says in his report that if Iridium had delivered a June 4 text message from Niña to Kiwi meteorologist Bob McDavitt as the schooner struggled in a vicious storm — probably the one that overpowered her — it might have alerted family and friends much earlier that Niña was in trouble. The message, sent June 4, read: “Thanks storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles, going 4kt 310deg will update course info @ 6pm.” That was the last transmission from the yacht.

“If this message had been delivered on the 4th June, issues of concern by the family and friends would have been raised earlier, particularly when no follow-up was received at 6 p.m. on that day,” Baird writes. “It is highly unlikely that they would have waited until 14th June to contact RCCNZ.” Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry says it was not Iridium’s fault that the message went undelivered. She says the address on it was incomplete, so the message was undeliverable.

Baird also takes Iridium to task for not releasing to rescue authorities the contents of that message — and position information on six earlier transmissions — until June 29, two weeks after authorities first requested it. Hockenberry, however, says Iridium was following the law. She says Iridium can turn over the location from which a text message is sent on request of a SAR agency, but it is constrained by U.S. privacy laws from releasing the content of the message without a court order or formal request from a federal agency. The RCCNZ had to ask the U.S. State Department to request the information, and when the department did that, Iridium responded promptly, she says.

Hockenberry says she agrees with Baird that formal understandings between rescue agencies and satellite service providers could make it easier to release information in situations where lives can be saved. “But we still have to follow the law,” she says.

Despite these and other more technical recommendations, Baird says he didn’t believe the issues they raised were the reason searchers couldn’t find Niña. “It is my firm view as the reviewer that [the failure to find the schooner] cannot be attributed to any lack of action, commitment or effort by … RCCNZ … and others,” he says.

Other SAR agencies could learn from the Niña search, as well. Hockenberry says Iridium has no memoranda of understanding for release of messages with any SAR agency, including the Coast Guard, though clearly they are needed.

Searchers used satellite images to assist in the search for Malaysian jetliner MH370 but not very successfully. “The search for MH370 and the use of satellite images demonstrated how difficult it is to use this technology to successfully prosecute a maritime search,” Baird writes. “A significant body of work is required before this technology will be a reliable resource in maritime search.”

Cdr. Mark Turner, chief of policy for the Coast Guard Office of Search and Rescue, says the Coast Guard hasn’t had any problems obtaining the information it needs from Iridium to help with searches. “They’ve always given us the information we’ve asked for,” he says. He adds that satellite imagery usually is not timely and the quality of the image is poor, which makes it difficult to use in a search operation.

“There’s a huge problem with satellite imagery,” he says. He says an alert from a 406 MHz EPIRB with GPS remains the “gold standard” for becoming aware of and locating a vessel in distress.

When last heard from, Niña, an historic racing boat and former New York Yacht Club flagship, was 370 miles west-northwest of Cape Reinga, the northwestern-most tip of North Island, New Zealand. The missing include Niña’s owner of 25 years, David A. Dyche III, 58, a professional mariner; his 60-year-old wife, Rosemary; their son David, 17; Americans Kyle Jackson, 27, Evi Nemeth, 73, and Danielle Wright, 19; and British citizen Matthew Wootton, 35. Niña was carrying an EPIRB, but authorities never received an emergency alert or mayday from the schooner, suggesting a sudden and catastrophic sinking.

September 2014 issue