SAROPS Proves its Effectiveness in the Western Pacific

Search and Rescue Computer Program Helps Coast Guard Meet Unique Challenges

By Lt. Brian J. Murphy
U.S. Coast Guard

Two men from the tiny island nation of Palau were on the return leg of an inter-island boat voyage May 26, 2007, when they realized they would not have enough fuel to complete the trip. When they decided to make a fuel stop, their 20-foot boat, a twin-engine 60 horsepower loaner from a Palau-based tug company, was blown off course by strong winds, and the two islanders quickly lost their bearings. The search and rescue (SAR) liaison officer with Palau’s Division of Marine Law Enforcement called U.S Coast Guard Rescue Sub-Center (RSC) Guam to report the mariners overdue and request assistance.

This case became one of the first opportunities for RSC Guam to employ SAROPS, a sophisticated new drift modeling system that replaced two older programs the U.S. Coast Guard had previously used to find distressed mariners – the Joint Automated Work Station, or JAWS, and the Computer Aided Search Planning, or CASP system.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Fourteenth District has always faced unique challenges because of its huge size covering most of the Western and Central Pacific. Part of the Caroline Islands group in the Western Pacific, Palau is located 500 nautical miles to the east of the Philippines, in the far western corner the Fourteenth District’s area of responsibility (AOR). The nation consists of more than 340 islands (mostly uninhabited) and was part of a former trust territory of the United Nations administered by the United States.

An independent nation since 1994, Palau’s nearly 20,000 citizens rely heavily upon U.S. financial assistance and SAR resources thousands of miles away in Guam and Hawaii. While much of Palau’s economy is based on tourism and the sale of fishing licenses to foreign fishing fleets, many citizens live on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Transportation by inexpensive and small-powered boats between islands is common and problematic for the Coast Guard.  Capt. Chris Conklin, former Chief of the Fourteenth District’s Response Division, has addressed the issue in several case studies.

“Generally, small powered skiffs are used for inter-island movements of short duration and typically end up in the open ocean after an engine failure,” said Conklin, who now heads the Fourteenth District’s planning division. “A lack of boating safety awareness and commitment by the local population is a causative factor.”

Nearly one third of these overdue cases result in suspension of search efforts. From 2003 to 2006, there were 15 such cases involving 69 missing boaters, averaging 52 hours of search efforts; 47 people were recovered, 22 presumed lost. Often search efforts are hampered by lengthy delays in notification after vessels are overdue.

“Overdue and adrift boats such as these represent a chronic SAR problem for Guam and District 14, and require a significant amount of Coast Guard and DOD air resources,” says Conklin. “There are usually lengthy delays in notification to the Coast Guard after the vessel becomes overdue.”

This point, combined with a more than 24-hour transit through four times zones for a rescue aircraft from Barbers Point in Honolulu to the search area, or 12 hours for a Department of Defense asset from Kadena Air Base in Japan, generally results in excessively large search areas. Staging areas are often hundreds of miles from the search area, shortening time on-scene and fatiguing aircrews. Furthermore, the resilience of islanders must never be underestimated.  Most are very experienced watermen who are known to sustain themselves on sea life, conserve fuel, jerry-rig sails, and flip their vessels to protect themselves in bad weather. These factors, combined with warm water temperatures, often create an evasive target and extended search efforts.

The two men during May’s case, one from Palau, the other a Philippine national, departed Koror State intending to travel to Kayangel State, a voyage of more than 25 miles through an archipelago of tall, rocky islands and barrier reef. When low on gas, they aimed for Ngarchelong, a village at the northernmost tip of Babelthaup Island (the largest of Palau), approximately 20 miles into their journey. Sudden rain squalls with strong winds are common in this tropical climate; it’s possible these two encountered just such a situation, causing them to quickly find themselves disoriented and without sight of land.

The request for U.S. Coast Guard SAR resources was routed to RSC Guam from the Government of Palau through the U.S. State Department’s Embassy in Palau. RSC Guam assumed SMC – Search and rescue mission commander status – and began search planning using SAROPS. RSC Guam also notified the Fourteenth District’s Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu, which tapped Barbers Point Air Station to launch a ready C-130 and rescue crew.  Coast Guard C-130 Rescue 1714 was directed to stage out of Kwajelein – an atoll more than 2,900 nautical miles southwest of Honolulu and the largest island of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and a U.S. base of military operations since 1944.

The opportunity for search planners to apply SAROPS in this remote region came with some eager anticipation. There are several unknowns associated with remote Pacific regions such as Palau, including actual environmental conditions and a lack of area familiarity. There are no leeway tables that account for a wooden skiff typical of this AOR, and search areas are often slewed by highly variable local currents. RSC Guam’s SAROPS drift model covered more than 4,000 square miles, and data relied almost exclusively on environmental data servers linked to SAROPS.

Before Rescue 1714’s arrival, RSC Guam provided search tasking to a Good Samaritan single-engine aircraft based out of Palau, which was unable to locate the vessel. The PSS REMELIK, based in Palau as part of Australia’s Pacific Patrol Boat Program to conduct maritime surveillance in the South Pacific, conducted a 10-hour search using SAROPS data and covered more than 400 square miles. Not long after Rescue 1714 had completed a three-hour search sortie, a tug (belonging to the same company as the missing boat) conducted an A-4 search and located the two men in the heart of the SAROPS drift models.

The survivors were in good condition, and subsequent analysis of completed searches showed that it’s likely that by the time they were discovered, SAR resources were within two miles of the vessel’s position not less than four times.

Operations Specialist First Class Zachary Graham was on duty for the U.S. Coast Guard in RSC Guam’s command center during the case: “This was a good test for the SAROPS program,” Graham said.

“Adjusting to a new drift model system requires training and practice but SAROPS is proving to be an effective tool.  SAR planners should be confident in its use on future cases.”

Lt. Brian J. Murphy is a search and rescue controller in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fourteenth District Joint Rescue Coordination Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. 

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