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A constant search for lost souls

It’s getting harder and harder to get lost these days, even, I suppose, if you want to.

As proof I point to the strange case of the Arctic Sea, the freighter that disappeared for almost a month this summer as it steamed with a Russian crew from Finland to Algeria carrying what was supposedly a load of timber.

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Shortly after passing through the English Channel in July, the ship essentially “disappeared” when its on-board tracking device was disabled. (A few days earlier, the Arctic Sea crew reported being boarded by “pirates.”)

For a time, the cargo carrier was dubbed a “ghost ship” as international speculation about her fate and whereabouts grew with each news cycle. Where was the Arctic Sea? Had she been hijacked? Had she sunk? What was she really carrying? There was plenty of speculation that a cache of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles bound for the Middle East was in the hold.

Russia’s president ordered his country’s navy to locate the wayward ship and, about a week later, the freighter was “found” off West Africa. The crew was rescued, a group of hijackers arrested, and the Arctic Sea was taken back to a Russian port.

The story caught the popular imagination, in part, because large ships just aren’t supposed to vanish in good conditions in northern European waters during summer. It was more than a little bizarre. Where do you hide a 4,000-ton ship when the world is searching for her?

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The genesis for this column on becoming lost and then found stems from the series of illustrations on this page of a steel cutter that was built and shipped to Africa in 1867 in hopes of rescuing the “lost” Scottish medical missionary and explorer David Livingstone. I came across the so-called “Livingstone Search Boat” while carefully perusing the illustrations and text in an 1867 volume of a weekly called “Engineering.”

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Time moved slower then. You could still design and build a rescue boat on one continent and ship it to another while holding out hope that a missing explorer might still be found alive. Were we just more naive? Perhaps we had more faith in the nature of things, in ourselves.

The little yawl designed to cover the rivers and lakes that Livingstone followed through Africa searching for the source of the Nile was built of steel plates only 1/16 inch thick and formed into a number of sections, weighing only 40 pounds each and bolted together. The reviewer for this technical journal writes that the cutter was well-stiffened vertically and longitudinally by angle irons and by the flanged edges of the steel plates.

“No skill has been spared upon the design or construction of this gallant little craft, and it is to be hoped that she may, as Sir Robert Murchison’s strong faith would lead us to hope, help to trace the great African traveler, and find him, yet living, and help to bring him home again to England,” the writer opines. “To hope this may be hoping against hope, but we shall at all events know within a few weeks.”

Sir Henry Morton Stanley, as you may remember, “found” Livingstone in 1871, when he may or may not have uttered the line: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Even though Livingstone hadn’t been heard from in about six years, the famous explorer knew where he was and had been even if England and the rest of the Western world did not. Which raises the question, “Was he really lost?”

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There is always someone or something listening for our distress calls these days. Push the right button on the right device, and the rescue forces will be scrambling before you can say, “I think we need a bigger boat.”

Satellites never sleep. Nor does the Coast Guard. The growing use of EPIRBs and PLBs, digital selective calling (DSC), and the Automatic Identification System (AIS) is helping shorten our horizons and make boating and cruising a fair bit safer. With the right tools, it’s become far easier to let someone know in real time that you’re in trouble, even from the far ends of the Earth. Without them, you’re still the proverbial needle in the haystack, as three Texas boaters recently found out (see Page 14).

The trio was fishing about 75 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico when their small power cat capsized. They had no time to get off a distress call via the VHF, and they didn’t own an EPIRB. Truth is, they didn’t know much about the distress beacons until after their rescue.

The Coast Guard wound up searching about 86,000 square miles — an area larger than Pennsylvania and Virginia combined — without finding the men. The victims and the boat blended too well into the Gulf waters. They sat on blue bottom paint and covered themselves with a piece of a blue Bimini top to keep the sun from baking them to a crisp. And even though they saw rescue planes, they had no flares or other signaling devices to capture the attention of the searchers.

The Coast Guard stopped its search after six days. Two days later, a sportfishing boat that had diverted from its planned course to fish an oil rig essentially stumbled on the drifters. It’s doubtful the men could have held out much longer, especially when the weather turned and their dwindling supply of water ran out.

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Some mysteries may never be solved, some lost souls never found. Two years ago, Jim Gray, one of the world’s most renowned computer scientists, vanished on a daytime sail to the Farallon Islands about 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Conditions were ideal: The wind was light, seas small and visibility good. Gray had planned to scatter the ashes of his mother, but he failed to return that evening. There has been no sign of either him or his 40-foot red-hulled C&C since. They have simply vanished.

A massive search ensued, including one of the largest and most organized private marine searches in history. And it was one of the first “digital” searches, as well. A company that provides satellite images for Google Earth redirected a satellite to better cover the area where Gray disappeared. The Canadian Space Agency did the same with one of its SAR satellites. And NASA even agreed to fly over the search area with one of its ER-2 aircraft to take photos with near-infrared cameras.

The images were broken into smaller “tiles” and posted on the Amazon Mechanical Turk Web site, where roughly 6,000 volunteers studied about 560,000 images looking for any sign of Gray. Nothing.

Whether we turn to satellites or spy planes or a steel-hulled yawl aimed at the heart of Africa, it is part of what makes us human to search for those who have gone missing, even after most hope has run out.

A retired Coast Guard commander who used to supervise the agency’s rescue and survival systems program told me he made sure his rescue teams searched up to the point where there was no longer any reasonable expectation that a victim could be found alive — and then he’d have them continue searching one more day.

“And I found people on that day,” he told me.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.