Six decades later, AMVER still lifesaver for mariners in distress

Amver1
Courtesy AMVER
The Greek AMVER vessel M/V Anthemis rescues four mariners from their disabled sailboat off the coast of North Carolina in 2008. Greek-flagged ships received more than 2,000 AMVER Awards last year for their participation in the emergency response system.

Leo Sherman was part of a three-man crew sailing a catamaran around the world when things got out of hand on the Indian Ocean in January 2009.

“We’d been running in a storm or chain of small storms for a day and a half,” Sherman, an Illinois resident, recalled of his voyage on the 43-foot Queequeg II. “At times there would be horizontal rain (and) winds as high as 50 mph or more, very limited visibility and intense seas.”

Sherman had just come off watch and was preparing a meal in the galley when “the next thing I know is I’m doing a somersault. We pitchpoled, then spun. Now we’re upside down. Water is rushing into the cabin. Almost immediately we are in knee-deep water and it’s rising quickly. The captain is gone.”

Paul Quentin “Quen” Cultra, Sherman’s friend who had built the boat on his Illinois farm and who had been at the helm, was never seen again.

Sherman and Joe Strykowski, the third crewmember, “began gathering critical items and tethering them. Joe located two dive suits, which we put on for warmth. We grab as much as we can before the water rises. It’s only a short time before we are up to our chests in the main cabin,” Sherman said.

The two men worked their way to the other hull to check the conditions there and grab supplies. When they began to head back, Strykowski got separated and disappeared.

Now on his own, Sherman said he went back and forth a dozen times between the hulls, “retrieving more stuff during the first and second day of my entrapment. I got a hole cut into the hull in the afternoon of the next day. I spent a horrible second night alone in the dark up to my chest in water.”

U.S. Coast Guard personnel chart ship positions on the plot map at the AMVER center, located in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City, in 1959. The system initially only monitored vessel movements in the North Atlantic.

Courtesy AMVER

Then, salvation. “I woke to a beautiful red-and-white freighter the next morning. It had been standing by at a distance all afternoon and night while I slept, exhausted.”

The ship, Auto Banner, then approached. After Sherman gathered some of his possessions in a bag, “I tossed everything over the bow, put my dive mask on and started swimming toward the freighter.” His ordeal was not over. First his knee and ankle were pinned briefly between the hulls of Queequeg II and the freighter. Then, as Auto Banner rolled in the waves and Sherman clung to a line thrown down by the crew, he began to be sucked under the ship. Finally, a rope ladder was deployed, Sherman was able to grab it and the crew pulled him to the deck.

Sherman survived to tell his story thanks to the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System, or AMVER, now the official name of what began as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting System. The 61-year-old worldwide network, established by the U.S. Coast Guard to direct ships to vessels in distress, has saved thousands of mariners.

“It’s a life-saving system,” Sherman said of AMVER. “I’m living proof.”

AMVER has handled 4,172 cases since 2002 and thousands more before that, although statistics are not available for that period. Benjamin Strong, a civilian who has headed the program since 2005, said the total of rescues and lives saved is probably higher than the statistics reflect because shipping companies outside the United States don’t always report to AMVER after a rescue.

“Shipping is a humble profession,” he said. “Generally, it’s difficult to get the information out of shipping companies because they view it as being the right thing to do, and they’re reluctant to be seen as bragging about it.” Another factor is ships’ officers are very busy and just may not have the time to make a report about a rescue.

There are currently 121 countries participating in AMVER. The 15,118 vessels enrolled represent 11.6 percent of the world’s flagged tonnage. The top participating flag states in order of number of ships are Panama, the Marshall Islands, Liberia, Hong Kong and Singapore. The Marshall Islands has the highest participation rate: 2,073 of 4,198 registered vessels, or 49 percent, are enrolled.

A “Coastie” types voyage data into the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting System, later called AMVER, at the system center in 1958.

Courtesy AMVER

AMVER ships saved 6,378 mariners between 1999 and 2018. The yearly totals range from 82 last year to 1,330 in 2014, when many migrants were rescued. The average number of ships being tracked on the AMVER plot has increased from 2,832 in 1999 to 7,260 last year.

At Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd., the third-largest ship management company in the world with 492 vessels, “we view AMVER as a support system. We encourage our vessels to participate,” said Capt. Mohan Muppidi, senior vice president at Fleet’s U.S. subsidiary. “Last year, our company vessels participated in two AMVER rescues. One was a man-overboard case and the other was assisting a sailing vessel.”

Muppidi added that Fleet Management’s biggest asset is its seafarers, “and our main priority is the safety and well-being of our seafarers. AMVER provides us the comfort that there is an extra pair of eyes watching and keeping track of our vessels. We share AMVER’s philosophy of international humanitarian cooperation, mariner helping mariner by assisting any person in distress at sea regardless of nationality or status, keeping with the highest traditions of the sea.”

The system was established in 1958 by the Coast Guard working with commercial shipping representatives. AMVER’s computer network continuously receives location data from merchant vessels to determine which is in the best position to make a rescue. When an emergency occurs far from a coastline, search-and-rescue agencies will reach out to AMVER. Then, the system’s rescue coordination center in New York City consults with AMVER’s computers in Martinsburg, W.Va., to find the nearest ship.

SAVIORS AT SEA

Top 10 nations earning AMVER Awards in 2018 (vessels with at least 128 days on the system plot):   Lives saved in 2018 (by country of vessel ownership, not flag state):

Greece: 2,009
Singapore: 1,249
Hong Kong: 758
United States: 744
Germany: 593
Japan: 463
Great Britain: 397
Norway: 293
United Arab Emirates: 291
India: 255

     United States: 35
Greece: 18
Great Britain: 6
Bermuda: 4
Chile: 4
Monaco: 4
Israel: 3
South Korea: 3
Japan: 2
Sweden: 2
Germany: 1
     

AMVER opened for business in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in Manhattan in July 1958. Initially, it was an experiment covering just the North Atlantic. An early IBM computer was able to develop a surface picture of ships transiting the oceans, and by the end of the first two years, 5,000 vessels were participating with their positions estimated based on sail plans and occasional teletype updates. By 1963, AMVER had broadened its reach to become a worldwide service.

The system’s largest rescue in terms of lives saved came after an engine-room fire aboard the liner MS Prinsendam on Oct. 4, 1980, in the Gulf of Alaska. The tanker Williamsburg arrived within seven hours, followed by three other AMVER vessels. The liner eventually took on water, capsized and sank, but only after all 519 passengers and crew were rescued.

In 1994, six AMVER ships converged on the burning Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and took aboard 504 of the 976 survivors. Later that year, in the largest AMVER operation in its history, 41 ships from 18 countries searched for six days to recover the only two survivors of the 31 crewmembers from the sunken bulk carrier Salvador Allende.

Early on, AMVER personnel used teletype messages based on radio reports to track ship positions. This required around-the-clock staffing of at least four people to screen and handle each message. In 2001, the Telex message routing system was replaced by modems and an automated system requiring no more than two people per shift. The system began switching to email reporting in 1999. Now, custom-designed software collects information from an Inmarsat satellite to produce automated position reports, although some ships still send manual messages.

AMVER participants Green Lake, foreground, a U.S.-flagged vehicle carrier, and Genco Augustus, background, a Hong Kong-flagged bulk carrier, respond to the burning Sincerity Ace on Dec. 31 in the North Pacific. AMVER ships rescued 16 mariners from the stricken vehicle carrier 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. The bodies of five others weren’t recovered.

U.S. Coast Guard photo

AMVER is currently operated by Strong and one other employee in New York, plus two contract computer technicians in West Virginia. The annual budget is $1.7 million.

Even though the number of nations participating in AMVER has grown, Strong said there are still some countries that resist joining the system. “There remains a hesitance to let the United States track where your ship is going,” he said. Another issue is that in some countries, sail plans still must be entered manually and emailed to AMVER. “There are a lot of requirements for folks on the bridge in terms of the paperwork they need to file,” and they may not want to add to the workload, Strong said. “It’s an extra step you need to remember to do.”

Although AMVER garners widespread praise from the maritime industry, “some people would argue that the technology has evolved and question why we would continue to need (it),” Strong said. Ships can be identified for search-and-rescue operations by satellite-based AIS, and by the long-range identification and tracking system mandated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), he noted. But Strong said the other systems do not have one important feature that AMVER provides. “Once we have a sail plan for a participant and we have the date and a position report from that ship, we can dead reckon” for real-time tracking of its course and position, he said. The AMVER system also captures the telephone number on the bridge for immediate contact, which the other systems do not, and AMVER collects information on whether medical personnel are on a ship.

 “The fact that we’re voluntary and that we’re a proven system makes it still relevant today,” Strong said. “It’s demonstrated every day by the lives that are saved and the ships that continue to enroll. I think we fill an important niche in global search and rescue.”

The IMO agrees. “AMVER provides important vessel position information to rescue coordination centers in the form of search-and-rescue surface plot pictures to aid in the rescue or assistance of mariners in distress,” said Heike Deggim, director of the IMO’s Maritime Safety Division. “Over the years, AMVER-participating merchant ships have rescued or otherwise assisted more than 15,000 persons, so this is very much appreciated by IMO and the entire seafarers’ community.”

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