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A tale of two search and rescues – Titan and African Cardinal

Screenshot BBC News website BBC-Titan-coverage-screenshot.jpg
It has been very hard to miss the coverage of search for the submarine Titan, which has gone missing while on a deep dive to the wreck of the Titanic, however, you could be forgiven for having failed to notice another search and rescue operation going on at the same time on the West Coast of the US for a seafarer who fell overboard from the bulk carrier African Cardinal.

The media coverage of the search and rescue effort for the five people onboard the 21-foot, unregulated submersible Titan, owned by OceanGate, has been wall-to-wall. Global news organisations such as the BBC running 24/7 live coverage on its website, which was at time of writing being viewed live by over 39,000 people.

A huge search operation is underway involving both the US and Canadian Coastguards, with vessels, aircraft and ROVs, from both the commercial industry and national authorities, involved covering an area of over 10,000 sq miles.

In between the updates in our inbox from the US Coast Guard (USCG), including press conference invites, there have been two short press releases about a crew member who was lost overboard from a bulk carrier vessel 14 miles off the coast of Point Conception, California.

On 20 June at around 5am US Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles – Long Beach Command Center watchstanders received a report of a crewmember who went overboard from the African Cardinal.

An Urgent Marine Information Broadcast (UMIB) was made, and a search and rescue operation launched involving a MH-65 Dolphin helicopter rescue crew, a small crew boat, and a Coastguard cutter Robert Ward.

Nearly 15 hours later in an operation that covered over 200 sq miles the search was suspended.

“We extend our deepest sympathies to this crewmember's friends and family," said Chief Warrant Officer John Rose, search and rescue mission coordinator at Sector Los Angeles/Long Beach. "The decision to suspend an active search is never easy and is only made after exhaustive efforts to find the missing person." 

It is a sad conclusion to a search and rescue operation that will leave a grieving family of a seafarer with a lack of closure. It is also something that is also sadly all too familiar in the world of seafaring and like many such incidents has gone unnoticed in the media apart from a few short stories from local news outlets.

It is in sharp contrast to the frenzy of coverage around the missing submersible Titan and its five passengers and crew. Those onboard the Titan are essentially on a highly expensive excursion to the wreck of the Titanic, while the seafarer who fell overboard the African Cardinal was working to keep global trade flowing on a voyage between Shanghai and Los Angeles.

We know little of the circumstances that led to the seafarer falling overboard, or even their identity, but we do know that the 61,226 dwt, Panama-flagged, African Cardinal, was classed with ClassNK, had up-to-date Safety Management Certification from the same Recognised Organisation, and undergone multiple port state control inspections in the vessel’s five-year lifetime.

This contrasts with the unclassed submersible Titan about which there have been serious questions about the safety of the vessel, including a court case involving OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, and letter of “unanimous concern” from members of the Marine Technology Society in 2018.

Clearly the Titan search and rescue situation is a captivating story and everyone hopes that it ends well.

But as we approach the International Day of the Seafarer on 25 June spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands crew on board merchant vessels that daily risk their lives on the world’s oceans to keep global trade flowing, and the missing seafarer from the African Cardinal and their family.