Coast Guard stations dot the entire U.S. Coastline, and most of their work extends only 20 to 30 miles offshore, according to Petty Officer Dave Silva, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard's Atlantic Command Center in Portsmouth, Virginia. Most calls for help received at the stations are pretty routine and non-lethal stuff. "That includes towing disabled boats and rescuing lost recreational boaters," Silva says.
Fishing vessels and merchant ships can find themselves in need of help much farther out than that, however. Coast Guard helicopters can go about 200 miles out and still have fuel to make it back. Beyond that, the Coast Guard often turns to a life-saving system of volunteers called AMVER: the automated mutual assistance vessel rescue system.
The program is open to all ships of all nations. It works this way: Ships from all over the world -- currently about 12,000 from 140 nations -- report regularly on their position and heading by Telex to a computer in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When the Coast Guard receives a distant cry for help, it can consult that database, figure out which ship is closest, fastest, and on the most advantageous route, and send the volunteers to the rescue.
Lieutenant Steve Pearson is a search and rescue coordinator for the Atlantic Area Command's 5th District, which covers an area from New Jersey to South Carolina. He recalls an incident in April 1998 when AMVER saved a life. He received a call from a fishing boat, the Cancivet, at 40 West longitude, pretty much the middle of the Atlantic. Bound for Halifax, a crew member had internal bleeding and needed medical attention.
Consulting the AMVER computer, Pearson determined that a merchant ship, the MV Hood Island, was about 60 miles away, bound for Houston, Texas. The ship wouldn't necessarily get to a hospital that much faster than the Cancivet, but it was at least five times bigger and more stable than the tiny fishing craft, and therefore a safer and more comfortable place to be ill on the open ocean.
Pearson dispatched a team of parachute-jumping Air Force reservists from Long Island, New York. They rode a Coast Guard C-130 transport to the Cancivet, and the parachutists leaped out in the night with rubber dingy in tow and transferred the ill crewman to the Hood Island.
Things were not always so good for those in peril. A hundred years ago, Silva says, Nantucket Island off the Massachusetts shore boasted 8 or 9 rescue stations. And the rescuers would have to row out into the surf in open boats to reach sailors in trouble. There were also survival huts on the shore where those washed ashore could huddle until help came. With AMVER, the reach of the rescuers extends across the entire ocean. More than 1,500 lives have been saved since 1990. "In one form or another, there is no such thing as a limit, although there are certainly better places to be," Silva says.
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-- By Daniel Pendick