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Electronics

A Fatal Error

The ill-fated fishing vessel Lady Mary, docked at her home port of Cape May, New Jersey, before the incident.

EPIRB manufacturers around the world are urging owners to make sure their distress beacons are properly registered. The warning follows the loss of the scallop dredger Lady Mary and six fishermen on March 24.

At the formal investigation into the sinking, a Coast Guard spokesman claimed that its first warning of the situation was an alert from an unreg-istered 406-MHz EPIRB, which was passed on from the NOAA SARSAT control center at 0707 on the day of the sinking. As is usual with non-GPS-equipped EPIRB alerts, the transmission gave two possible positions, but at 0715 a second satellite fly-by confirmed a position about 65 miles southeast of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

By 0820 a rescue helicopter had located Lady Mary's empty liferaft, and by 0850 the helicopter was on its way back to base with Jose Arias, the sole survivor, and the bodies of two crewmen. But according to Arias, the scalloper went down long before the Coast Guard received the distress signal.

Arias told investigators that he was awakend at about 0500 by someone shouting that the boat was sinking and that he found himself in the water within a few minutes. His account was confirmed by Lady Mary’s automatic tracking system, whose last position report was transmitted at 0510, and by a Mayday that was picked up by another fishing vessel at about 0500.

So why did the message from a 406-MHz EPIRB—one that was subsequently recovered, tested, and found to be in perfect working order—take so long to reach the Coast Guard?

One particularly worrying aspect is the Coast Guard’s initial statement that Lady Mary’s EPIRB was “unregistered,” an allegation that was immediately refuted by the boat’s owner and by the NOAA decals on the EPIRB itself.

As the inquiry progressed, it emerged that the beacon identification number—ADCD023C3542C01—had been wrongly keyed into NOAA’s database: the last four digits were recorded as 2001. A spokesman for NOAA explained to the inquiry that a signal from Lady Mary’s EPIRB was picked up by a high-orbiting geostationary satellite at 0540, probably within minutes of when the boat actually sank. If the beacon had been properly registered, he said, NOAA’s automated system would have kicked in and immediately provided the Coast Guard with details of the boat and her owner, who would probably have been able to confirm that Lady Mary was indeed at sea and given her approximate location.

But that fatal error in the unlucky thirteenth digit meant that Lady Mary’s EPIRB instead showed up as “unregistered.” And as it was a basic EPIRB—one without an integral GPS—the geostationary satellite couldn’t tell where the signal had come from, so NOAA had no useful location information to pass on to the Coast Guard until two low-flying LEOSAR satellites picked up the signal.

The Coast Guard has repeatedly stressed that registration isn’t just a legal requirement, but that it saves lives. The tragedy of this particular case is that a failure in the registration system—a typing error by a sub-contractor’s clerk—may have cost six lives. To register, renew, or check your EPIRB registration online, go to www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov.

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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