Coast Guard’s Amver program marks a half century of saving lives

Modern rescue centers, such as the U.S. Coast Guard First District rescue coordination center in Boston, rely on Amver to provide the locations of ships close enough to come to the aid of vessels in distress.

They were hundreds of miles from any port. Their cargo ship had capsized and was sinking. It seemed the 11 mariners could rely only on their life raft to save them from the treacherous waves of the Caribbean Sea.

The crew of the North Korean-flagged vessel Tel Tale II did have one other hope for survival as their raft rolled in the heavy surf April 16, about 300 miles south of Puerto Rico. Their distress calls had triggered the U.S. Coast Guard’s Automated Mutual Assistance Vessel Rescue System, and a Greek tanker was on its way to pick them up.

Below, the very first Amver center, in the Customs House in New York City’s Battery Park, opened 50 years ago. (Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

As a Coast Guard jet aircraft signaled the location of the distressed mariners, Aegean Angel angled into place and plucked the 11 men out of the sea. The tanker crew offered the rescued men dry clothing, a meal and comfortable quarters.

Aegean Angel’s operators participate in the rescue system — known as Amver — because they believe all mariners should help each other in moments of peril. If their own ship ever were in danger, they hope other mariners would come to their aid, said Dimitrios Mattheou, safety and quality manager with Athens-based Arcadia Shipmanagement Co.

“Our vessel immediately responded and succeeded in rescuing all of the mariners,†Mattheou said. “I believe (Amver) is a very, very important program, and if all vessels were participating in this, I think all vessels would be safer.â€

Amver is a computer-based network that uses position data from merchant vessels to coordinate deep-ocean maritime rescues. The voluntary program is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Over just the past 15 years, Amver responders have rescued 3,866 people at sea.

“It’s really a beacon of what people can do together to help each other,†said Adm. Joseph R. Castillo, the Coast Guard’s director of response policy. “It has taken the mariner ethos of rescuing other mariners at sea — dropping what you’re doing — and combining it with the technology that kind of extends the reach of what we’re able to do to assist people at sea.â€

The Coast Guard, with commercial shipping representatives, founded Amver in 1958. The program covers virtually all of the world’s navigable seas.

Amver’s success depends on the 18,690 enrolled vessels that regularly send positioning data to the network’s computers, along with the ships’ intended voyage track lines. Many vessels generate automated position reports via satellite every six hours.

The data from each volunteer participant routinely include a sail plan, position reports and notification of final arrival at the destination. If the sail plan changes because of weather, the vessel also sends a deviation report to the Amver database, said Geoffrey Pagels, senior search and rescue controller at the Coast Guard’s Rescue Coordination Center Norfolk in Portsmouth, Va. Amver keeps track of about 100,000 voyages a year.

“It’s based on dead reckoning,†Pagels said. “The ship will give us updated position reports, but it will also give us its intended journey across the ocean.†When a rescue is needed, “we try to pick a ship that is generally heading in the same direction that isn’t too far away.â€

Dispatched by Amver in November 2006, MV Anthemis came to the rescue of a sailboat taking on water 400 miles off the coast of Virginia. All four aboard were rescued. In the last 15 years, Amver has helped rescue 3,866 people.

An Amver response is triggered when the Coast Guard learns of an EPIRB or other distress signal reporting a man overboard, vessel fire, medical emergency or other maritime accident. The originating rescue coordination center first verifies that the distress call is real.

If the emergency is too far away from a coastline and a coast guard, officials may deem that an Amver vessel is the best hope. An official rescue coordination center in any nation can request an Amver response. Previously, such a request needed to be sent to the United States by fax, but recently Amver established an online network for this, said Douglas Horton, Amver functional area manager with contractor Stanley Associates.

Then a U.S.-based rescue coordination center consults with the technicians running the Amver database in Martinsburg, W.Va. The computers in West Virginia tap into volunteer vessels’ positioning data to develop a list of potential responders. The U.S. rescue coordination center then forwards that list of ship locations — with contact information — to the foreign rescue center.

That rescue center then contacts the vessel operator by e-mail, fax or phone to request assistance. If possible, the nearby Amver-participating ship steers to the scene of the emergency to assist.

For 50 years, the U.S. Coast Guard and Amver officials have kept a promise that the ship-positioning data will be used for rescue purposes only. Otherwise, a voluntary system wouldn’t be practical, because ship managers might fear that proprietary information could get into the wrong hands, said Benjamin Strong, Amver’s director of marketing.

“Certainly there was a reluctance from a competitive-advantage standpoint,†Strong said. “Now more than ever, people are reluctant when the United States government says, ‘We want to track your ships.’ But we have never breached that confidentiality with our shipping partners.â€

Most ship operators agree that saving mariners’ lives in an emergency trumps any desire to keep a vessel and its cargo on a strict schedule, Castillo said. The current Amver enrollment represents about 40 percent of the world’s fleet.

“It’s a tough world out there, and the sea can be very unforgiving,†Castillo said. “The law of the sea is when others need help, you provide help. You could be the one who needs help at some point.â€

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) credits Amver participants with making the high seas safer for seafarers. In a letter recognizing Amver’s golden jubilee, IMO Secretary-General Efthimios Mitropoulos said vessel participation is “vital in the cooperative and humanitarian service†Amver provides. “Since its inception, countless lives have been helped, in many instances rescued under difficult circumstances, thanks to the worldwide use of Amver,†Mitropoulos wrote. “Many of you have been called upon to assist in distress cases, and you have responded willingly, courageously and with excellent results.â€

One grateful sailor is Harry LeBlanc, 62, of Lynnfield, Mass. LeBlanc was one of five friends who found themselves in peril when their 45-foot fiberglass sailboat Epiphany lost its rudder in October 2007. The vessel was bouncing aimlessly in 10 to 15-foot seas and 35-knot winds in the North Atlantic about 200 miles from Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

The men, who had started their voyage from Palmer’s Cove Yacht Club in Salem, Mass., set off an EPIRB and used a satellite phone to call the Coast Guard.

“They weren’t optimistic at all that somebody was going to rescue us anytime soon. They said be prepared to stay out there a few days,†LeBlanc said.

Instead, the Amver vessel Atlantic Prosperity, a 350-foot research ship, arrived just eight hours after the sailboat’s rudder sheared. The ship’s Croatian officers configured a Jacob’s ladder, an inflatable dinghy and a lifeline to rescue the men. Atlantic Prosperity’s crew comforted the stranded sailors and fed them delicious Filipino cuisine, LeBlanc said. The research ship, which had been en route to Nigeria, diverted to San Juan to drop the Massachusetts men off.

“Amver was the saving grace,†LeBlanc said. “We can’t thank them enough for what they did.â€

Originally known as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting System, Amver debuted in New York’s Customs House in July 1958. Even then, an early IBM random-access-method computer was able to develop a surface picture — or surpic — that showed the position of various ships in the ocean. In two years, participation totaled 5,000 vessels. Positions were estimated based on sail plans and occasional teletype updates.

In 1963, Amver extended into a worldwide service. Today it’s still the only global ship reporting system. As of Aug. 1, 2008, 77 Amver ships had diverted to rescue 130 people during the year.

Amver’s largest rescue operation was a response to a raging engine-room fire aboard the liner MS Prinsendam on Oct. 14, 1980, in the Gulf of Alaska. The tanker Williamsburg arrived in seven hours, with three other Amver vessels responding later. Although Prinsendam flooded, capsized and sank, all 519 of its passengers and crew were saved.

In the early days of the program, Amver personnel used teletypes based on radio reports to keep track of ship positions. That cumbersome system required around-the-clock corps to ensure that at least four people were screening and parsing each message and indexing them.

“Every message that we got had to be touched by a human before committing it to the database. Most of the messages were entered by hand by a first mate,†Horton said.

After 2001, when the Telex message routing system switched to modems and Amver built an automated parser, only an average of 1.5 to two people were needed per shift to monitor the quality of the data inputs. The system converted to e-mail in 1999-2001. Because many of the 151 countries that send data to Amver have antiquated telecommunications networks, some messages still are validated by hand.

Nowadays, custom-designed computer software can collect information from global positioning and an Inmarsat satellite to produce automated position reports. Eventually the space-based signals will be the standard.

“Down the road, everybody is going to be (sending) automatic position reports,†Horton said.

The technological improvements in vessel positioning will save lives. “As you get this better fidelity, you’re able to get people there faster,†Castillo said.

Arcadia Shipmanagement has been a part of Amver for about seven years. All 15 of the company’s tankers participate. The Tel Tale II rescue made Aegean Angel’s crew proud.

“This was big success,†Mattheou said. “We want to provide assistance to other seamen.â€

By Professional Mariner Staff