Search for missing yacht 'botched'

MICHAEL FIELD
Last updated 12:15 27/07/2013

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Rescue authorities made a terrible mistake in their search for an American yacht lost in the Tasman Sea since June 4, a missing sailor's partner says.

Curly Carswell's partner, American mathematician and software genius Evi Nemeth, 73, is one of the seven people aboard the 85-year-old yacht Nina.

Carswell, a New Zealander living in Savusavu, Fiji, said the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCCNZ) started their search 10 days too late.

Then it was misled by satellite telephone technology and made assumptions about Nina's last known position that were hundreds of kilometres out, he added.

In an open letter widely distributed among cruising networks and in an interview with Fairfax Media, Carswell said New Zealand had failed in its job but there was still time.

"And while I hate to warn you all, as Evi my partner is one of the crew, and with tears in my eyes I must tell you as a mariner that the time is running out very quickly for the probability of survival of our loved ones at sea."

RCCNZ said the emotive comments were regrettable but understandable.

"The suggestion that the staff of RCCNZ have acted in any way other than with total professionalism is entirely unreasonable and without foundation," general manager of safety and response services Nigel Clifford said.

Comparisons had been made with the 1989 castaway of the trimaran Rose Noelle out of Picton, which capsized off the east coast of the North Island and despite an emergency locator beacon and an extensive search was never found. It washed ashore at Great Barrier Island 119 days later with its four survivors.

Nina left Opua on May 29, bound for Newcastle, Australia. It was last heard from on June 4, when conditions in the Tasman were very rough, but searching only began on June 25. The official search was called off on July 4 with no trace of Nina or crew found.

It had an older model emergency locator beacon (EPERB) and a Spot GPS tracking system that transmitted latitude and longitude data to a list of telephone and email addresses and could be followed on Google Earth.

The yacht's crew also had an older model of an Iridium satellite phone that could send text and voice messages, but did not have GPS.

The EPERB was never activated but the Spot GPS tracked them for a time.

On June 4, Nemeth sent a text message to Auckland weather expert Bob McDavitt. She gave a position but Carswell said RCCNZ did not accept that and instead took the position that Iridium said the message had come from.

The difference between the two positions was 1100 kilometres in the Tasman Sea.

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Carswell said RCCNZ used the wrong position - the Iridium one which was closer to New Zealand - to estimate the north-west-ward drift and the south-east-ward drift to work out likely search areas.

They spent more time looking at places based on the Iridium position, not Nemeth's position.

Carswell alleged RCCNZ was in damage control after making mistakes over where to search.

"I do very strongly believe that Nina would have been north north east of the Orion Search undertaken on the June 26..., and that is why Nina was not found by RCCNZ.

"I also believe that the Orion would have seen Nina had it been in the search area - they are very good."

He feared search authorities discounted the position given by Nemeth, but Carswell said she was "a real pain in the butt when it came to the accuracy of navigation".

"She would never make a mistake with the position on text... I think it might have been a grave mistake to not accept Evi's stated position and instead to go with other information, especially given the extent I and those who know her swear by her meticulousness as far as navigation goes."

Carswell noted RCCNZ had said it did not matter whether they used the Iridium position or the position sent by Nemeth as they covered both.

He said it did matter because the wider search activity to the north and southeast was pivoted on what he called the erroneous Iridium position.

"It is heart-wrenching to now know RCCNZ were searching and expending assets over the wrong area, and wrong areas hundreds of miles away."

He said a search should have begun on June 4, but instead RCCNZ waited until June 25 that had been given.

"There is enough reason to believe that the search for the famous US Schooner Nina and the crew of six US citizens one Briton was so mismanaged by the (RCCNZ) that they were even searching at what is believed to be the wrong area."

RCCNZ's Clifford said in their search they considered in detail "last known positions" from three different sources as the basis for determining a total of nine separate search areas covered in eight aircraft missions - six of these missions were flown by the RNZAF P3 Orion and two were flown by a commercial, civilian search and rescue specialist service.

The positions were on those given by crew on June 4, another given by Iridium at the time of the last message from the phone and the position given by the Spot GPS.

RCCNZ knew the possible inaccuracies of each of the positions, Clifford said.

"As details emerged of the possible large errors in the Iridium position reporting, search areas already completed were reviewed to consider the impact of these possible errors and other search areas based on the position given by the crew were modelled, and then searched."

Clifford said it was important to note that Nina never issued a distress signal.

RCCNZ has discussed the search operation with both the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the US Coastguard.

"On the basis of information provided, both organisations have indicated that they would have followed a similar process in undertaking a response." 

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- Stuff

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