Lost text stalled search for missing US yacht: report

WELLINGTON - Satellite telephone service Iridium Communications failed to give New Zealand rescuers details of a dramatic final message from a missing yacht until the US State Department intervened, a review of the search effort said Thursday.

The report into the search for the vintage American yacht Nina, which disappeared in the Tasman Sea in June 2013 with six Americans and one Briton aboard, said the entire dynamic of the rescue operation would have changed had the message been delivered earlier.

The message in question was a text sent on a satellite phone by crew member Evi Nemeth to meteorologist Bob McDavitt on June 4 revealing the wooden-hulled vessel was adrift without sails after being caught in a severe storm.

"Thanks storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles, going 4kt 310deg will update course info @ 6pm," it said.

The text never reached McDavitt and the families of those aboard the yacht did not raise the alarm with the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) for another 10 days, on June 14.

Even then, rescuers believed it was possible the Australia-bound yacht was merely running late due to rough weather as Iridium did not pass on the text revealing it was in trouble, despite a June 15 request from RCCNZ for all relevant data regarding the Nina, the review said.

As concerns about the yacht mounted, the operation moved into "distress phase" on June 27, meaning aerial searches were stepped up amid grave fears for the lives of the Nina's crew.

But the review, written by former Australian maritime rescue chief David Baird, said Iridium still did not pass on the message until July 3, after the RCCNZ asked US authorities for help in dealing with the Virginia-based company.

"Even if this message had remained undelivered but its contents provided to RCCNZ when they first contacted Iridium on 15th June, then the whole dynamic of the search would have started at another level and the distress phase would have been declared much earlier," it said.

No trace of the Nina has ever been found, despite a search that Baird found was thorough and professionally conducted.

"It is my firm view as the reviewer that this unfortunate result cannot not be attributed to any lack of action, commitment or effort by (New Zealand rescuers)," he said.

He called for better information sharing from satellite phone operators in search and rescue operations.

"RCCNZ needs to engage with Iridium and other service providers to explore ways in which information on communications can be provided without having to resort to engaging police and other authorities such as the (US) State Department," he said.