Sunday, May 18, 2008

Needles in a haystack

This is a story of good news and bad news for three Sydney fisherman on Saturday off the New South Wales far south coast. As reported by the Australia ABC News with the headline "Rescued anglers 'needle in a haystack' after freak wave":

Four men were thrown into the water after their eight-metre vessel was swamped by a large wave about 15 kilometres from Bermagui.

Their 36-year-old friend drowned in the accident.

Police said the freak accident happened so quickly that none of the four men had time to don life jackets.

Water police Sergeant Jim Hinkley says the survivors suffered hypothermia from their three-hour ordeal in the three-metre swell.

"We're talking needle in a haystack. It's incredibly lucky," he said.

"I mean that when involved in a number of search and rescues, when we've been looking for people and how difficult it's been when we knew almost exactly where they should be, but this time we believe the rescue vessel when it came across these people in the water did so out of sheer luck."

After reading plenty of discouraging rescue cases over the last a couple of years, we must agree with the police Sergeant Hinkley that the three anglers were extremely fortunate, even though they lost one friend from their team. The low probability of rescue success is most certainly not because of a lack of devoted efforts. It's just the ocean is so vastly large, even the coastal areas, and human beings are so pitifully small out there that rescuers almost need to comb through every inch of the ocean to be able to find them in time. Thank God we can always count on the police, coast guard, and all kinds of volunteer rescuers out there when they are needed -- sometimes performing miracles for the family of the fortunate ones.

U.S. Federal law requires commercial vessels to have an Emergency Positioning Radio Indicator Beacon in federal waters. The EPIRB is supposed to send a distress signal when it hits water. My friend Rob Stormer of the Robin Storm Blog and a marine engineer and salvage master is always on the look for possible EPIRB malfunctions. I don't know if the Australians have a similar law. May be they have, that's why the anglers were lucky. But if they don't have a similar EPIRB law, they should! Come to think of it, may be every sea-going boat should be equipped with something like that in the first place -- with or without a government pushing it.

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