It is quite unusual in this era of modern technology that the untrained eye is used to spot the small dot of a missing yacht on a large ocean, from a viewing platform 2,000 metres above sea level. However, this actually happened this week when a single-handed yacht lost its mast 275 nautical miles out from Sydney harbour in Australia. What was even more unusual was the fact that ordinary passengers on a jet were the ones who spotted the yacht.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) received a signal from an onboard emergency beacon which was activated at 8:15 a.m. local time on Tuesday this week out in the notorious Tasman Sea. To ensure they didn’t waste any time deploying aircraft to search for the yacht in distress they requested assistance to confirm the GPS position.
Civilian aircraft that were transiting the area at the time, which included crew and passengers on board an Air Canada flight, were asked to peer out of the porthole sized windows at an altitude of around 2,000 metres, to assist in the location of the yacht, reported to be 275 nautical miles from Sydney. An Air New Zealand flight then joined in the action and flew above the yacht to confirm its location and the actual incident.
Crew and passengers aboard the Air Canada flight were thanked for their help in finding the yacht. Both the Air Canada flight number 033 from Vancouver and a second Air New Zealand jet which was on passage from Auckland, were both on route to Sydney when they were requested to change their course.
AMSA said in a statement that it wished to thank the captains and crew of the Air New Zealand and Air Canada aircraft for their help in the search and rescue operation, and the passengers for being patient in the incident. Once the vessel’s location had been confirmed, both the Air New Zealand A320 and Air New Canada Boeing 777, continued on to Sydney. A search and rescue aircraft then took off to the location, where it made contact with the single handed yachtsman. He said his yacht had been dismasted and would be unable to make land fall, as he was short of fuel.
While awaiting sea assistance, a merchant ship provided shelter and help until the Police ship “OPV Nemesis” from New South Wales arrived to rescue the yachtsperson.
Most sea going yachts these days have aboard what is called a 406 emergency beacon (epirb) which, once its signal is activated, will be picked up thousands of kilometres away by monitoring services such as AMSA, giving the exact location of the beacon and the vessel’s name. It is quite unusual for a maritime authority to require confirmation from anything but another maritime vessel when it comes to confirming the actual position of a ship. The beacons confirm accuracy down to a few metres, but time can’t be lost as the signal will only be emitted for up to 48 hours and once the signal stops, it will become increasingly difficult to locate the exact position of the vessel in distress.