Basics of a Search and Rescue at Sea

23 July 2021 By Ted Morley
rescue helicopter at sea

Capt. Ted Morley was raised aboard a schooner and has made a career working on board vessels ranging from superyachts to super tankers. During his tenure at sea, he worked his way up from seaman to master. He currently holds a USCG Master’s License, Unlimited Tonnage as well as several foreign certificates. Capt. Morley actively participates in maritime advisory committees in the U.S. as well as overseas and is involved in regulatory policy review in the U.S.. 

It is with a heavy heart that we remember fellow crew that won’t return home from the sea. On April 13, in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, the commercial lift boat Seacor Power sank. This tragedy affects all mariners and reminds us of the risks we’re undertaking by making a living on the sea.

We’ve had a lot of conversations with seafarers about Search and Rescue (SAR) from the standpoint of being directed to assist the authorities in searching for a lost vessel or crewmember as a Good Samaritan vessel. Often, the first vessel on scene is another commercial or recreational vessel that’s nearby and can render assistance prior to the arrival of a rescue asset. 

 Because of time and conditions, survivors may be miles from the wreckage. Life rafts, people, and debris all drift at different rates. 

SAR is taught in several STCW courses but isn’t a required skill. An effective rescue begins with an effective search. One of the first things you need to determine is where to start looking. That may sound obvious, but the “where” is the part that’s difficult to determine. The best place to start may be at the last reported position of the vessel, but that depends on time and conditions. The USCG searched over 9,200 square nautical miles for survivors of the Seacor Power sinking, and the vessel sank just eight nautical miles from shore.

Why such a huge search area? Because of time and conditions, survivors may be miles from the wreckage. Life rafts, people, and debris all drift at different rates. A recent case of a Florida woman who went into the water was later located more than 70 miles away in just 20 hours. The more time in the water, the larger the search area — especially if there’s high wind or waves.

Establishing this initial position is called a “datum,” which may change throughout the search as more parameters are input and more time goes on, but accurately predicting this position is vital to the search. The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre or Coast Guard typically takes the lead in that determination but the vessels on scene need to know what goes into that so they can properly relay info back to authorities. The search pattern is determined by area, conditions, and the vessel’s size and capabilities.

Even a routine MOB drill can be an opportunity for crew to work on these terms and techniques. During practical training, make it as realistic as possible. Don’t always use a bright orange buoy to simulate a person in the water; unless that person went in with a lifejacket, you’re really looking for something that looks more like a coconut…

SAR is something all of us pray we never need and will never be involved in, but it’s something we should all be trained in and familiar with so that if we need to render aid, we’ll be able to successfully answer the call and help our fellow mariners. Their survival may depend upon it.

This article originally ran in the July 2021 issue of Dockwalk.


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