When a mariner is found at sea it is no accident. In fact it is often the result of hours of deliberate search and rescue planning and continually nurtured partnerships across jurisdictions and borders. Search and rescue governance is an important element in the Pacific where vast distances and limited resources make saving lives all the more challenging.
The Pacific Search and Rescue Steering Committee
The committee is a collective of search and rescue agencies from five principle nations: Australia, Fiji, France, New Zealand, and the United States. These nations hold responsibility for significant search and rescue regions of the Pacific. Each nation is committed to working with neighboring countries or territories within or near their areas of responsibility to build SAR response capability. Communally, the committee is working to build SAR capability and cooperation across the Pacific to work together seamlessly to save lives.
This year’s Seventh Pacific Regional Search and Rescue Workshop was held in Auckland, New Zealand, and jointly hosted and organized by the government of New Zealand with support of the International Maritime Organization and Secretariat of the Pacific Community.
The workshop was the largest attended event since the inception in 2006, with over 110 attendees representing 21 Pacific Island countries and territories and another 14 regional partners and observers, including International Maritime Organization and International Maritime Rescue Federation.
The U.S. Coast Guard was involved in several facets of the workshop.
The 14th Coast Guard District is scheduled to host the next workshop in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2019.
Demonstration Becomes Reality
The Pacific region faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to search and rescue.
With small countries and dispersed island groups with diverse levels of economic growth and significant communication challenges, there is limited access to SAR assets and response coordination capabilities.
Effective response in an already challenging field becomes even more difficult over the 31 million square miles of Pacific Ocean with dynamic weather.
Upon completion of the weeklong conference and harbor demonstration, a U.S. Coast Guard crew, the Hercules, prepared for their long flight home, back to Oahu, Hawaii. Prior to departure, the crew was notified of a Tongan vessel two days overdue.
Tonga is in the Pacific region, relevant to the workshop just held and in the path of the Hercules’ flight home.
Despite being eager to return home, the crew agreed to conduct search patterns off the coast of Tonga to search for the overdue vessel and the six men aboard.
Four hours into the flight the crew arrived in the area the Tongan vessel was believed to be.
Though loss of daylight was a challenge, the crew began search patterns provided by Rescue Coordination Center New Zealand. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Koehler, pilot of the Hercules, wore night vision goggles while scanning the dark waters below. Other crewmembers were in the belly of the plane scanning the ocean.
In less than two hours, 80 miles off Tonga, Koehler saw something in the water. The crew zoomed in on the camera monitor. A 40-foot vessel was spotted with men on top of their superstructure waving their arms and white cloths.
The Tongan vessel lost power days prior and drifted offshore with no communication capabilities. The Hercules prepared for a gear drop, much like the one they had just demonstrated the day before during the SAR workshop when they dropped a life raft, except this time they were preparing to deliver a long-range deployable drop kit. The kit included food rations, water, a VHF radio to make contact with the vessel and a transponder to emit their location.
“I am proud of my crew and how well we represented the United States this past week,” said Koehler. “We were in New Zealand at the 2017 Pacific Search and Rescue Conference talking to delegates from Tonga about search and rescue capabilities and the next day we spotted a disabled vessel 80 miles off of Tonga’s shore using night vision goggles without the use of radar. The conference was designed to strengthen relationships and enhance search and rescue interoperability in the region to address rescue situations like exactly like this and working together we are saving lives in the Pacific.” (USCG)