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 of 2009.
“We'd been running in a storm or chain of small storm for 1.5 days,” Sherman, an Illinois resident, recalled of his voyage on the 43-foot Queenqueg II. “At times there would be horizontal rain-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 summersault. 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 was at the helm, was never seen again.
Sherman and Joe Strykowski “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 chest in the main cabin.”
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.
Sherman survived to tell his story thanks to AMVER, now the official name of what began as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting System. The 61-year-old worldwide emergency response system established by the U.S. Coast Guard to direct ships to other vessels in distress has saved thousands of sailors.
On his own, Sherman, now 64, related, “I was back and forth a dozen times 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.”
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. Either the EPIRB went off automatically when it got wet or Joe set if off manually.”
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 crushed lightly between the hulls of Queequeg II and the massive Auto Banner. Then as the freighter rolled in the waves and Sherman clung to a line thrown down by the crew, he began to be sucked under the ship. Finally when the crew dropped a rope ladder, Sherman was able to grab that and the crew was able to pull him to the deck.
Sherman’s rescue resulted from the boat’s emergency signal being picked up by Rescue Coordination Center La Reunion, the information being forwarded to AMVER and a participating merchant ship being in the area.
“It’s a lifesaving system,” Sherman said of AMVER. “I’m living proof. Chances are I wouldn’t” have survived without it. “Ships could have passed right by and not have seen it because the hulls were light blue.”
AMVER has handled 4,172 cases since 2002 and thousands more before that, although statistics are not available. Benjamin Strong, a civilian who has headed the program since 2005, said the numbers of actual rescues and lives saved are probably higher than the statistics reflect because shipping companies outside the United States don’t always report back to AMVER when they make 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 ship’s officers are very busy and may just not have the time to make a report about a rescue.
The total number of countries currently participating in AMVER is 121. The 15,118 vessels enrolled represents 11.65 percent of the world’s flagged tonnage. The top participating flag states in order of the number of ships are Panama, Marshall Islands, Liberia, Hong Kong and Singapore. The Marshall Islands has the highest percentage participation rate: 2,073 of 4,198 registered vessels enrolled in AMVER.
The number of lives saved between 1999 and last year totals 6,378. The yearly totals have ranged 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.
“We’re fortunate in that we have an amazing relationship with the commercial shipping sector,” Strong said.
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 of Fleet Management USA. “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 our 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 maritime community and even many outside of it are familiar with the notion that commercial ships are often rerouted to the scene of a disabled vessel. But they may not know how it works.
The system was established in 1958 by the Coast Guard working with commercial shipping representatives.
AMVER’s computer network collects position data from merchant vessels to determine which is in the best position to make a rescue. Enrolled vessels regularly send positioning data along with intended course to the network’s computers. When an emergency occurs far from a coastline, search and rescue agencies will reach out to AMVER. Then the New York-based rescue coordination center at the Battery in Manhattan consults with the computers in Martinsburg, W.Va., to find the nearest ship.
AMVER opened for business in the Customs House in in Manhattan in July 1958. It began as an experiment covering just the North Atlantic. An early IBM computer was able to develop a surface picture of ships in the oceans. 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 outreach to become a worldwide service.
In the 1960s and 1970 AMVER was part of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs. It provided the agency with a maritime support plan in the event of a space flight emergency.
The system’s largest rescue of people came after an engine-room fire aboard the liner MS Prinsendam on Oct. 14, 1980, in the Gulf of Alaska. The tanker Williamsburg arrived in seven hours followed by three other AMVER vessels. The liner capsized and sank, but only after all 519 passengers and crew were saved.
In 1994, six AMVER ships converged on the burning Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro and took aboard 504 of the 976 survivors. And later that year, in the largest single 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. That 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 over to e-mail reporting in 1999. While many of the vessels that send data to AMVER have adopted automated methods to send their position data, some ships still send manual messages that need to be handled manually.
Now, custom-designed software collects information from global positioning and an Inmarsat satellite to produce automated position reports.
At this point AMVER is run 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 it still requires sail plans to be entered manually and emailed to AMVER “and 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. “It’s an extra step you need to remember to do,” he said.
After a ship directed to an emergency by AMVER arrives, the response varies depending on the situation. “If the sailor is not in life-threatening distress, the usual response is let’s get him fixed up and on his way,” Strong said. “It’s not uncommon for a commercial ship to provide food or water, batteries or fuel if a vessel is capable of getting underway and the ship doesn’t have to embark a yachtsman at sea.”
While AMVER has a high success rate in saving mariners, rescuing their vessels is more troublesome.
Whether to attempt to tow the sailboat or abandon it “is a call by the commercial ship at the scene,” Strong explained. Usually it’s impractical for a large ship to tow a small recreational vessel even if it is still afloat because the smaller vessel cannot withstand the stress of the tow at the speeds commercial vessels travel.
Although AMVER garners widespread praise from the maritime industry, Strong said he occasionally hears questions about the need to keep the system going. “Some people would argue that the technology has evolved and question why we would continue to need AMVER,” he said.
Ships now can also be identified for search-and-rescue operations by satellite-based AIS and the International Maritime Organization-mandated long-range identification and tracking system, 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. Plus AMVER also 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.”
IMO agrees. “AMVER provides important vessel position information to rescue coordination centers in the form of search and rescue Surface Plot Pictures to aide in the rescue or assistance of mariners in distress,” said Heike Deggim, director of 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.”