Search for schooner Niña continues with private effort

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Months after its disappearance in May on a stormy Tasman Sea, the 84-year-old schooner Niña and its crew of seven remained the focus of an exhaustive, privately funded search by 13,000 volunteers who have pored over 2 million satellite images for some trace of the fabled 50-foot ocean racer.

“I can tell you unequivocally that there is absolutely no evidence the boat sank,” says Ralph Baird, the Houston geophysicist and petroleum engineer who is heading the volunteer search.

New Zealand’s Rescue Coordination Center undertook an air search for the wooden schooner, covering 737,000 nautical miles of ocean and shoreline, and found no trace of Niña — no bodies, no life rafts, no wood or sails or cushions or life jackets, no debris at all.

The rescue center suspended its 12-day search July 6 — its largest ever — saying “there is nothing more we can do at this stage,” but said it could resume the search if new information came to light.

Baird is a board member and senior adviser to the Texas EquuSearch Search and Recovery Team, a volunteer group that employs the best technology available to search for missing persons (texasequusearch.org). In Niña’s case, EquuSearch responded to pleas for help from the crew’s families, who believe their loved ones are alive on a disabled but drifting boat.

EquuSearch enlisted the aid of DigitalGlobe, a Longmont, Colo., provider of Earth imagery sourced from five satellites: Ikonos, QuickBird, WorldView-1, GeoEye-1 and WorldView-2. “Using models of the currents and winds to predict where the Niña might have drifted, we directed our constellation of satellites to collect almost 500,000 square kilometers of high-resolution imagery over the ocean,” DigitalGlobe says in an email to Soundings.

DigitalGlobe has what it calls a “crowdsourcing platform,” a website where thousands of volunteer online contributors are asked to examine small sections of the search area, which is about the size of California. The volunteers “tag” — electronically circle — anything that looks like a life raft or hull. “More than 12,000 individuals have identified or tagged hundreds of thousands of clues,” DigitalGlobe says.

An algorithm identifies the crowd’s consensus of the most important locations to check. They are sent to the search team for examination by volunteers who are professional imagery analysts.

The crowdsourcing has borne fruit. On Sept. 16, satellites captured a fuzzy image of what appears to be a floating vessel about the size of Niña 184 miles west of Norfolk Island off the east coast of Australia. Enough volunteers flagged the image to bring it to EquuSearch’s attention, but when the rescue center in New Zealand was asked to check the area, it said it needed a better-quality image to put planes in the air. In any case, the rescue center said, its own analysts and others thought it highly unlikely that the image was Niña.

After that rebuff, EquuSearch, which is funded entirely by donations, raised the money to hire two private planes to begin searching the waters between Norfolk Island and Australia north to the Great Barrier Reef, and the Queensland coast. By Thanksgiving, the EquuSearch aircraft had logged 286 search hours, compared with 77 for the two Orion aircraft the rescue center put in the air in June and July to look for the schooner.

Families cite the 1989 case of Kiwi John Glennie and three friends, who survived 119 days inside a capsized 41-foot catamaran off Australia’s east coast. The men survived on fish they caught and rainwater they captured while the catamaran rode a wide loop on currents, finally grounding on the beach of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

Baird says other disabled vessels have done the same while running between New Zealand and Australia. If they get caught in one current, the Tasman Front, they are transported into the Pacific. If they ride on what Baird calls one of the “reverse-circulating, counterclockwise currents” — vortexes that spin north and west off the East Australia current — they ride a continuous loop, sometimes for months, before they are spit out on a beach in southeastern Australia.

Locals are familiar with these currents, Baird says. “That’s our model. If we didn’t have evidence that they got into that circulating current, we wouldn’t be doing this.”

He notes, too, that the Kiwi Orions covered 737,000 nautical miles in 77 hours at a speed of probably 200 mph, using radar that scans 160 nautical miles. Unless Niña was 30 miles from the aircraft, the radar wouldn’t have detected her at its outer range. “It’s ineffective at 40 nautical miles,” he says. “There’s no way they can say that area was even 50 percent searched.”

That’s why he thinks analysis of satellite imagery should be used routinely to augment air searches. The navies patrolling off Somalia use satellite imagery to find and identify pirate boats. “That’s the technology we need for search and rescue,” he says. “Satellites can find small boats.”

Baird has been frustrated and perplexed at the runaround he has gotten from the U.S. and New Zealand governments. The rescue center has been unwilling to act on what he believes is new and actionable information. He asked the U.S. Coast Guard whether EquuSearch could use its sophisticated Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System to get a better projection of where the Sept. 16 image might be headed in the prevailing currents. Baird says the Coast Guard was willing but told him to get clearance from the State Department, evidently to avoid offending the Kiwis.

Baird says the State Department told him it has nothing to do with search and rescue and knows nothing about it, so he received no help from that quarter. The satellite images he gets from DigitalGlobe usually are five to 15 days old and, by law, are low-resolution to protect national security, so he has asked the U.S. National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency to provide more current high-resolution images of any vessels matching the Niña’s description. He has received no response. “I don’t know why the government isn’t helping,” he says.

Niña, a famous ocean racer and once the flagship of the New York Yacht Club, disappeared with its 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, 18; and British citizen Matthew Wootton, 35.

Niña left Opua in the Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island on May 29, bound for Newcastle, Australia, 1,500 miles away — an eight- to 10-day voyage. She was last heard from June 4, when she was 370 miles west-northwest of Cape Reinga, the far northwestern tip of North Island. The rescue coordination center reported 26-foot seas and 50-mph winds, gusting to 70, in the vicinity that day as the first of a string of brutal winter lows marched through the Tasman Sea in early June.

The yacht was carrying a manually activated EPIRB, a Spot beacon — which the rescue center says also had to be activated manually to send regular track signals — a satellite phone, parachute flares and a VHF radio. However, the center did not receive a mayday via satellite phone or VHF, or a Spot or EPIRB alert. That strongly suggests Niña sank quickly before the crew could react and call for help, but Baird says there’s no physical evidence to support that conclusion. “It’s very unusual that a ship sinks,” let alone sinks without a trace, he says. He believes the Niña is still out there somewhere.

February 2014 issue