Lost at sea and rescued by modern technology

The Baltimore Sun

For someone who suddenly found himself treading water - in his shorts, after midnight, 30 miles at sea as his cruise ship chugged on without him - Mike Mankamyer was one lucky guy.

First, somebody saw him fall over his cabin's balcony railing and drop 60 feet to the water below.

Second, they alerted the crew of the Carnival Glory, who quickly noted the ship's position, slowed to a stop and lowered boats for a search.

And third, the Coast Guard was operating a new search-and-rescue planning system called SAROPS. It quickly assembled real-time data on winds, tides and currents off Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Then it calculated Mankamyer's drop point and possible drift trajectories, and plotted his rescue.

After sunrise March 16, eight hours and 15 miles from where he fell in, Mankamyer was spotted, splashing and waving, by a lookout aboard the 110-foot Coast Guard cutter Chandeleur as it followed the search pattern SAROPS assigned.

A helicopter crew soon plucked him from the water. Mankamyer had a collapsed lung and was very cold, but he had survived.

Rescuers credited SAROPS (Search and Rescue Optimal Planning System) with providing the precise drift data that led rescuers to Mankamyer before swift Gulf Stream currents could carry him away, or hypothermia and exhaustion could take his life.

Coast Guard officials can't give statistics for the new system, but they're confident it will save more lives.

"The future is hard to quantify because we don't perform controlled tests," said Art Allen, an oceanographer with the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue office in Groton, Conn., who helped develop the technology. "I think, as we continue to make ... improvements and refinements and additions, it's only going to get better."

In 2006, Coast Guard crews responded to more than 26,000 search-and-rescue calls. They saved more than 5,200 lives, but another 786 were lost - more than 300 of them after the Coast Guard was called.

Until this year, those searches were planned using technology that had fallen behind the times, according to Richard A. Schaefer, chief of policy and programs in the Coast Guard's Office of Search and Rescue in Washington.

It included drift simulation software that took the uncertainties about how a floating object might drift and generated a small selection of places where it might be found after six or 12 hours.

It worked after a fashion, Schaefer said, but didn't draw a very detailed picture of the best places for rescuers to look first. Constrained by 1970s-era computer language and technology, it could use only limited environmental data, and none of the newest science for calculating drift.

The other piece of the system was called JAWS (for Joint Automated Work Sheets). "It was like taking the old paper-and-pencil-with-charts, and putting it on a computer," he said. "But it produced no better solutions than paper and pencil."

SAROPS was designed to improve on all that, and to pack everything into one user-friendly computer terminal.

The system was developed over three years, at a cost of $3.9 million, by Applied Science Associates of Narragansett, R.I., in collaboration with Northrup Grumman, Metron Inc. and the Coast Guard.

Training for search-and-rescue controllers was completed in February. By March 1, the SAROPS system was operational at 48 command centers coast to coast, and offshore from Puerto Rico to Guam.

The new system incorporates ASA's Environmental Data System. Using the Internet, it gathers real-time data and forecasts of wind, tides, wave action and currents from the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The information flows into a Coast Guard data center in Martinsburg, W. Va., where it is processed and passed on to SAROPS terminals at Coast Guard search-and-rescue offices across the country.

There, SAROPS operators enter the best coordinates and descriptions they have for who or what is missing - including lost cruise-ship passengers, disabled pleasure craft, drifting life rafts or lost cargo containers.

The operators call up the appropriate environmental data, and SAROPS calculates where the target is most likely to be found as the hours tick by.

Built into the system's mathematical formulas are decades of Coast Guard experience and experimentation with different kinds of drifting objects.

"Each ... has different drift characteristics," said ASA marketing director Lee Dooley.

A man who falls overboard in his shorts, such as Mankamyer, will move differently with the wind and currents than a drifting sailboat. Likewise, a drifting sailboat with sails up will move differently than with furled sails, or one that's sinking.

Calculating a multitude of possible drift scenarios in seconds, the SAROPS computer displays a detailed "probability grid" - thousands of colored specks superimposed across a map or ocean chart.

On the screen, red specks mark the most likely span of ocean to search. They are surrounded by orange, yellow, green, blue and gray dots, where the likelihood of success grows slimmer. And they all shift with time, wind, currents and tides.

Compared with the old system, Schaefer said, "they give you more data points over a given area - a denser grid, which makes it more accurate." And instead of advancing the drift predictions every six or 12 hours, SAROPS can update predictions for every hour after a call for help.

Armed with drift calculations, the SAROPS operator enters data on the rescue craft available, their range and time on scene, altitude and weather conditions. The computer automatically plots the most efficient air and sea search patterns, which are transmitted to the rescue crews.

These optimal search patterns, developed by Metron, will vary depending on such factors as the weather and wave height at the scene, which can affect the visibility of bobbing victims.

"Previously, you'd have to aggregate all the data yourself and plug it in," Dooley said. The SAROPS computers "really speed things up. Quicker is always good, because ... people don't survive a long time in cold water."

While Mankamyer was treading water in the dark last month, the SAROPS controller in Miami punched his last known position into the system, called up wind and water data, and quickly defined the prime search area.

Next, he tapped in data for two small search boats, the Coast Guard cutters Vigorous and Chandeleur, and a helicopter that were headed for the scene. Then he asked SAROPS to design the most efficient search patterns for them. Two cruise ships already in the area - including the Carnival Glory - also joined the search.

The Chandeleur arrived on scene at 5:40 a.m.

"It's 30 miles offshore. It's black, and we're essentially looking for a coconut in the water," said Christopher Eddy, the civilian command duty officer for Coast Guard District 7 Miami, who coordinated the overnight rescue. Lookouts used spotlights and night-vision glasses.

A debriefing later revealed Mankamyer knew a search was on. "He did see us, and he was trying to swim into the spotlights," Eddy said.

Finally, at 8:32 a.m. - an hour after sunrise in Miami - a lookout aboard the Chandeleur spotted him. By the time the Coast Guard crews got home that morning, Mankamyer's rescue was all over the news.

"It's nice to see the payoff ... and the good it brings to all parties," Eddy said.

Another recent success - a small boat found in the turbulent Mona Passage off Puerto Rico - has convinced even the most skeptical, seasoned search-and-rescue personnel of SAROPS' power, he said.

"It looks like we're on the right road here," Eddy said.

frank.roylance@baltsun.com

Searching for the Bonhomme Richard

Applying the Technology

A customized version of SAROPS has been put to work in the search for one very-long-overdue vessel ? the Bonhomme Richard, captained by John Paul Jones during the American Revolution.

The U.S. warship sank in the North Sea on Sept. 25, 1779, during Jones? famous point-blank battle with the British warship Serapis.

Seeing the mortal damage to the Richard, the British captain asked Jones if he were surrendering, to which Jones famously replied, ?No, I?ve not yet begun to fight.?

His ship eventually sank, but not before Jones and his crew had boarded and captured the Serapis.

The Richard has been ?a coveted wreck that many people have been searching for,? said Applied Science Associates marketing director Lee Dooley. ?We were contracted through the Ocean Technology Foundation to help them in the search.?

ASA produced a custom version of SAROPS, entered all the known historical data and asked the system to calculate the most likely search zone, based on modern knowledge of the winds, currents and tides in the area.

?They had a lot of success with it,? Dooley said. A search last year turned up some promising wreckage. ?This year, when the weather gets nice in the North Sea, they?ll go back.?

Frank D. Roylance

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