Aegean SPOT Distress Signal Details Emerge

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 01:54PM - Comments: (20)

June 19, 2012

If you recently bought a SPOT Connect for its distress calling capability, or are looking at similar satellite messaging devices such as the SPOT Messenger, DeLorme InReach, or Briartek Cerberus, you'll want to read our upcoming report on the tragic April 28 accident involving the Hunter 376 Aegean during the Newport to Ensenada Race.

PS looked at the Spot Connect (bottom) and the Cerberus tracking and messaging system (top) for a future article.

When we first reviewed the SPOT Messenger, we raised concerns about introducing a private distress monitoring service into the search-and-rescue equation. Unlike a 406 MHz EPIRB or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), the SPOT “SOS" distress signal does not operate on the 406 MHz frequency used search-and-rescue agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard. The SPOT signal goes to GEOS Alliance, a monitoring service based in Houston, Texas, which follows its own response protocol.

According to the SPOT website, if a distress call is made using the SOS function on a SPOT device, GEOS Alliance’s Emergency Response Center “notifies the appropriate emergency responders based on your GPS location and personal information." In case the SPOT cannot acquire its location from the GPS network, “it will still attempt to send a distress signal – without exact location – to GEOS, which will still notify your contacts of the signal and continue to monitor the network for further messages.”

While reading about the Aegean accident, in which four sailors died when their boat reportedly sailed into rocky North Coronado Island sometime around 1:30 a.m. on April 28, I began to wonder: What would happen if a SPOT distress alert had no position, but the SPOT's approximate location was known through tracking data? And what would happen if the SPOT's track clearly indicated danger—say, a sailboat plowing into rocky island off the coast of Mexico?

Would that then merit a call to the Coast Guard?

Apparently not.

Sometime around 1:30 a.m. on April 28, the SPOT device owned by Theo Mavromatis, the registered skipper of the Aegean, sent out a distress signal that was received by GEOS Alliance. According to one person I spoke with who is familiar with the incident, “there is no question that this was a distress signal sent by a person.”

Although the distress signal had no position data, Mavromatis had programmed the device to report his position every 10 minutes so that family could track the boat. Shortly after the distress signal went out, Mavromatis' wife, Loren, received a phone call from GEOS Alliance. She was asleep, so the report of the distress signal from her husband’s SPOT went to voicemail. For several hours after that, it appears that there was no effort made by the monitoring agency to contact the U.S. Coast Guard or to confirm the distress alert, even though boat’s track clearly indicated trouble.

The Coast Guard search for Aegean's crew did not begin until more than eight hours later, after fellow racers came across debris from the wrecked Hunter and contacted the U.S. Coast Guard. Initially, it was thought a ship had collided with the boat, but when the track data surfaced later, the grounding on Coronado seemed the most likely explanation.

Lead investigator Lt. Bill Fitzgerald of U.S. Coast Guard Sector San Diego could not offer more details on the timeline of the distress call or the response, citing the ongoing investigation. He said the USCG's final report would be completed within two to six weeks.

Based on what is known at this stage, it seems clear that GEOS Alliance needs to closely examine how the Aegean distress call was handled, and how its existing response protocol might be improved. A distress call was made, and even without the boat's precise position, the Aegean's freight-train track toward Coronado Island spelled trouble, and its last known position would have been helpful to a search-and-rescue effort.

I'm disappointed that SPOT, GEOS Alliance, and the two groups investigating the accident—U.S. Coast Guard and a US Sailing panel, which recently used the SPOT data to conclude that the accident was caused by a grounding—have delayed releasing the apparently well-documented details surrounding the Aegean distress call. SPOT Messengers and similar satellite-based messenging devices are getting snatched up like iPads this summer, and while bloggers blather about the marvels of the new technology, I suspect many buyers don't have a clear understanding of how they work. I don't want to dissuade someone from buying something that might one day save their life, nor discount the advantages of two-way communication that some of the newer devices offer, but knowing what can go wrong with these gadgets is just as important as knowing what can go right.

Several people have reminded me that the SPOT Messengers and similar devices have already saved many lives. They also tell me that Aegean's distress call delay appears to be an isolated incident. Lt. Fitzgerald said that he was unaware of any prior cases, at least in his sector, in which "the distress signal was not responded to in a timely manner by the third-party monitoring service.” 

The "official" distress alert options like 406 EPIRBs have problems, too. In our article “What is the Best Backup for a 406 EPIRB?” we reported how clerical errors in the 406 EPIRB registration process nearly resulted in one sailor's distress signal being ignored. Neverthless, a GPS-enabled 406 EPIRB is still Practical Sailor's first choice for satellite-based distress signaling. If you use a SPOT or a similar device, it should be a backup. In either case, boaters need to be certain that their registration data (boat name, point of contact information, etc.) is up to date, and that the owner and point of contact are well informed about what they should do in the event of a distress signal.

Perhaps the best lesson in all of this is that any electronic distress beacon should be regarded as truly a last resort—and an imperfect one at that.

UPDATE: This article has been revised to reflect PLBs status. Although they operate on 406 MHz frequency recognized for SAR distress agencies as the Coast Guard, they are not officially part of GMDSS, as implemented under SOLAS international treaty.

Comments (20)

We were 12 miles west of the island when we passed it that night. I don't remember the time but it was well after 1:30am. The island was clearly visible from that distance. The wind was light but the swell was fairly heavy.

Posted by: Spinbag | June 23, 2012 3:48 AM    Report this comment

I had a long conversation with a representative at GEOS Alliance yesterday. He was very forthright about the details of the incident, and again confirmed the distress call. It was sent using the new SPOT Connect. I was told the Aegean incident has prompted changes to GEOS Alliance's standard operating procedures. The new guidelines call for the duty officer at GEOS Alliance to review past tracking data when no position data is linked to the distress signal and no further transmissions follow the distress signal. This suggests to me that enabling the tracking feature would be a good idea, although this will reduce battery life. The many issues raised by GMDSS-compliant and non-compliant distress alerts in this case are complex, a bit too much to address in a blog. Look for more in the August issue of Practical Sailor. At the heart of it is the increasing number of false alerts that occur as more people have easy access to "SOS" buttons. GEOS Alliance, the global leader in this relatively new industry, monitors more than half a million such devices. I appreciate the feedback from readers who are sharing their real-world experiences with these devices. As expected, I'm also getting feedback from vendors of the new subscription-based SOS beacons, who remind me of their key role in a number of search-and-rescue success stories. Here's another view to contemplate: http://www.panbo.com/archives/2012/05/spot_connect_works_fine_deserves_attention.html

Posted by: DARRELL N | June 22, 2012 11:50 AM    Report this comment

I find it difficult to believe that the Aegean came apart upon impact in such light conditions. Two weeks prior, Low Speed Chase was photographed virtually intact, washed up onto one of the Farallon Islands in conditions that were far, far worse. It seems far more likely that Aegean was hit by something. This was supposed to be an experienced crew and it was not totally dark that night. How did they not see whatever it was, be it island or ship?

I have a Spot Messenger and during a recent race, our track was shown to have gone across the west end of Catalina Island. For some reason, two consecutive tracking updates were missing. Other than that, it has functioned fine, though I have never had to send a SOS signal.

Posted by: nogybe | June 21, 2012 9:36 PM    Report this comment

I find it impossible to believe, even if it was a Hunter, that a grounding, as hard as it could be, would totally destroy a 37' boat. There must be more involved, though we may never know what.

Posted by: hislr | June 21, 2012 1:22 PM    Report this comment

A comment about using data from a third party tracking to create a distress call is needed. In some areas, chart data can be very old. These charts may have islands mis-located by as much as a few miles. Also, GPS data can be off. The third party vendor would have to very sure the data is accurate before a report is generated.

Posted by: Unknown | June 21, 2012 1:15 PM    Report this comment

FS5703: There was extensive discussion on Sailing Anarchy about CO toxicity, and the consensus was that a diesel engine (which we know is standard on Hunter 376, btw Erich H) has an extremely low likelihood of causing impairment to the degree necessary to be causal in this incident. If the boat had a gasoline engine, it would have been an important factor to consider.

Posted by: PHILIP M | June 21, 2012 1:13 PM    Report this comment

One has to wonder if auxiliary engine exhaust poisoning is in play here. That would certainly explain the poor judgement and any ability to react by all on board. It is hard to imagine a situation that everyone on-board missed all the same pieces of the puzzle for impended disaster unless all were being affected equally by some unknown condition. Knowing that there is a device set to update position every ten minutes on shore, one would have to expect the same is taking place on the vessel, clearly displaying a collision course with the island. A true tragedy all around.

Posted by: FS5703 | June 21, 2012 9:04 AM    Report this comment

It appears that GEOS could improve their procedures:

1. If a distress report comes in without a position, review the past position reports to see if one can be estimated.

2. If you can't reach the designated responsible party, notify the authorities.

Posted by: donradcliffe | June 21, 2012 7:48 AM    Report this comment

What reason do you give for mentioning the brand name of the unfortunate sailboat? Would a Swan or Hinckley have not had the same disastrous consequences given the same circumstances?

Posted by: Erich H | June 21, 2012 7:42 AM    Report this comment

What reason do you give for mentioning the brand name of the unfortunate sailboat? Would a Swan or Hinckley have not had the same disastrous consequences given the same circumstances?

Posted by: Erich H | June 21, 2012 7:42 AM    Report this comment

Where is the keel, engine and mast? The north end of North Coronado Island was dived and no heavy bits were found. I believe that is an important question that is yet to be answered. hmmm.

Posted by: Bad Crew | June 21, 2012 2:19 AM    Report this comment

Depending on the state of the stars, moon, clouds, etc., and if there were no lights on the island, I could imagine it was very dark and even if someone was awake it may have been too dark to see anything until it was too late.

Posted by: ROBERT H | June 20, 2012 7:27 PM    Report this comment

What is the reason that there wasn't a position included in the SPOTS broadcast?

Posted by Rocky I

Posted by: Rocky B | June 20, 2012 2:36 PM    Report this comment

We were recently in a position where we needed to use our SPOT distress signal. When they called our emergency contact, they were also told they couldn't locate our GPS. While we're so glad to have the tracker function and the SPOT as a back-up, it was our VHF which was able to relay our situation to the USCG (through a container ship). Next on the shopping list: EPIRB and SSB . . .

Posted by: SoManyBeaches | June 20, 2012 2:28 PM    Report this comment

It is my understanding that the boat did not have a 406 EPIRB on board.

Posted by: DARRELL N | June 20, 2012 1:03 PM    Report this comment

I use SPOT primarily for it's tracking function, but it is very disturbing that no position data was available when the distress signal was sent. After all, we are paying for this service. I wonder how often this occurs, and what is SPOT's protocol in this situation (apparently, none). How would the user know if know position data was sent? The user could resend the alert and attempt to improve positioning of the SPOT device (e.g., hold it up if the user is in the water?).

Does anyone know if the Aegean had a 406 EPIRB? Were EPIRBs required for the the race? What about PFD's, tethers, and jacklines? After two major tragedies in California, ocean racing committees and racers should review their safety requirements and whether they want to change anything to improve survivability in an emergency. They may not, but then they must accept the risks.

Posted by: Camilo M | June 20, 2012 12:48 PM    Report this comment

Here is a case to look at the person who was at GEOS Alliance .. A thorough check of that person's cell phone records including texting activity is in order.. My bet is that he/she was also asleep at the switch and doing something else.

Posted by: CLAUDE L | June 20, 2012 12:39 PM    Report this comment

An early responder to the scene described too much small chopped up debris to be consistent with the simple explanation of the boat driving up onto the island at 6 to 7 knots. While the SPOT track appears to make a clear case for that simple explanation, the appearance of the debris requires additional explanation.

Posted by: PETER L | June 20, 2012 12:31 PM    Report this comment

From what we were told, there was no position data for the distress signal, but one can assume that it was sent not far from the last known position.

Posted by: DARRELL N | June 20, 2012 10:41 AM    Report this comment

I'm curious as to where the distress call was made from, how far from the island? From viewing the tracking it appears that they went right into the island. They were in a cruising class, there was no wind to speak of so they could and probably did run their engine. Most of us in the race think that's what happened, they ran their engine and auto helm and who or whom ever was at the helm fell asleep.

Posted by: Larry | June 20, 2012 10:21 AM    Report this comment


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