Recently, I was looking at my latest copy of the Seafarers Log, the official publication of the Seafarers International Union.
On the cover there is a picture of the crew of the tanker OSG Nikiski after they had successfully saved the lives of two people whose boat had lost power and steering over 200 miles from shore in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the photo, several crewmembers involved in the rescue were proudly displaying a white pennant framed in yellow with the word ‘AMVER’ in bold black lettering.
Though not legally required, for hundreds of years it was understood that if another vessel needed help, merchant mariners had a responsibility to offer their assistance. In such a situation, two of the biggest problems they faced were knowing the exact location of the emergency, and then getting there in time to help.
By the early 1900s, visual sightings of distress signals coupled with radiotelegraphy made determining the position of a stricken vessel easier, but a successful rescue still always depended on arriving at the scene early enough.
A good example of this was the RMS Carpathia, which was about 58 nautical miles from the Titanic’s location when it received the sinking ship’s radio distress signal. Despite the captain doing all he could, including navigating his vessel through a treacherous ice field, Carpathia arrived two hours after the Titanic went down.
As the number of commercial ships working worldwide grew, and new technology allowed for even better communication, it became obvious that developing a legally sanctioned network which could direct merchant vessels to the location of an emergency would improve the chances for a successful rescue.
So, in April 1958, the U.S. Coast Guard and shipping company representatives from a number of different countries began discussions which a few months later led to the creation of the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting system. Known as AMVER, it focused specifically on the western portion of the North Atlantic.
By 1971, what started as a search and rescue system employing vacuum tubes and punch cards, morphed into a computerized, high-technology network that could be employed worldwide.
Reflecting that change, Atlantic was replaced by the word Automated, and since then AMVER has been known as the Automated Merchant Vessel Reporting program – the most important feature of which is something called a SURPIC.
SURPIC is an acronym derived from SURface PICture, which contains the courses, speeds, previous tracks, and current locations of participating commercial vessels. When it receives a report of an emergency at sea, the AMVER Center in New York is able to send a SURPIC to the search and rescue authority nearest to where the ship in distress is located. Utilizing the information the SURPIC contains, the local authority can coordinate and direct the nearest ship to the rescue of the stricken vessel.
To ensure that the AMVER Center can send the most current and up-to-date information if their assistance is needed, participating vessels have to regularly send in four different reports – a Sailing Plan, Position Report, Deviation Report, and an Arrival Report.
Because many shipping companies have eliminated the position of radio operator, those reports are now emailed via satellite, high frequency radio, or even ship’s computer to email@example.com.
The Sailing Plan must be sent within a few hours of departure and contain enough information to predict the ship’s actual position within 25 nautical miles at any time during their voyage, while a Position Report is sent to update the vessel’s progress 24 hours after departure, and at least every 48 hours thereafter.
If the vessel has to significantly deviate from its original Sailing Plan, a Deviation Plan must be transmitted as soon as possible, and at the end of its voyage a ship’s Arrival Report is sent.
Looking at the pictures in the Seafarers Log only hints at just how effective AMVER has been at facilitating rescues at sea, considering that between 1999 and 2023, nearly 6,500 lives were saved. To their credit, the U.S. Maritime Administration requires all US-flag commercial vessels over 1,000 gross-tons operating in foreign commerce, as well as those carrying more than six passengers for hire at least 200 miles offshore, to be part of the AMVER network.
Unfortunately, to date, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) does not require foreign-flag ships registered in other countries to join.
On any given day, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, close to 60,000 commercial cargo vessels are plying the oceans. Of these, only about 20,000 are part of AMVER. If all commercial vessels had to participate, it could mean that thousands more lives could be saved every year.
That’s why, in my opinion, it is long past time for the London-headquartered IMO to mandate that all commercial vessels – regardless of registry – participate in AMVER. In that way, the organization would show mariners worldwide that it really does care about their safety.
Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin’. •
Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org