Jack Boye set sail from Miami on April 27, 1985, hoping to be in New York 10 days later for the city's Vietnam veterans' parade.
The Dear America was a new, untested 35-foot sailboat. Boye's radio failed on the trip and he ran into a severe storm off the Virginia coast. Twenty-five-foot waves and 60 mph winds tore open the hatch, which had kept the cabin watertight.
With his craft continually tipping on its side and battling to stay afloat, Boye had only one option. He activated the boat's Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon, tethered it astern and waited for help.
Six hundred miles above him, a passing Soviet satellite received his distress signal and relayed the message to Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, the closest search and rescue command center. The Air Force called the Coast Guard.
The Americans and the Soviets yesterday celebrated five years of saving lives with satellites, covering the globe so that emergency teams can react quickly. The COSPAS/SARSAT program, born at NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, now enjoys international success. More than 900 lives have been spared, according to Goddard statistics.
COSPAS is the Russian abbreviation for Space System for Search of Vessels in Distress, while SARSAT stands for America's Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking.
Most planes and many boats carry emergency beacons, which are manually or automatically activated in a disaster. Specially equipped satellites receive the beacon's distress signal and alert Local User Terminal ground stations to the location of trouble. The ground stations notify Mission Control Centers and they notify the appropriate Rescue Coordination Center, which dispatches help.
Two beacon frequencies are used. The older 121.5 MHz (Mega-hertz) is used by older emergency position-indicating radio beacons and Emergency Locator Transmitters. The newer frequency, 460 MHz, can provide the location of the disaster, as well as the type of craft.
The hardware consists of two U.S. satellites and two Soviet satellites. The Americans have piggybacked the rescue transponders on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellites, while the Soviets place their transponders on navigation satellites.
"It is one of the few programs where we have effective collaboration with an Iron Curtain country. It's purely a humanitarian effort. There's no profit or loss sheet. No government intelligence involved. It's only to save people in distress," said Fred Flatow, the program's manager at Goddard.
Canada and France are also executive partners in this search and rescue system. These countries provide essential ground support, completing the system.
"It is helping in improving diplomacy," said Flatow.
James T. Bailey, SARSAT's program manager at NOAA, agrees that this is a high mark in diplomacy. "It's the most cooperative effort. They want to make it work," he said. "All the participating countries are more than happy to cooperate."
False alarms, however, present a serious problem for the COSPAS/SARSAT system. About 90 percent of the signals received are false alarms, according to George Griffin of Goddard.
Recently, Griffin said that a search was initiated in the Washington area when a satellite received an emergency transmitter beacon. The local Civil Air Patrol trailed the signal to Rockville, where an activated transmitter was found on someone's desk.
Griffin not only helped design the rescue system at Goddard, but he is also a pilot in the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary group of the Air Force that performs search and rescue missions.
Last Saturday, when a Cessna 172 crashed near Martinsburg, W.Va., Griffin said COSPAS/SARSAT kicked into gear. According to news reports, nearly 50 searchers combed the area for the plane. A satellite had found the location, making the rescue quicker. One of the passengers sustained a fractured skull and was taken from the crash site to a hospital. One other passenger survived; two died.
In early 1990, NOAA will take the reins of the command center, which will move from Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill., to Suitland. Bailey said that combining the operations will make the system more efficient.
Without the system, Boye said, he might have been adrift for days. Within hours the Coast Guard grabbed him from the ocean.
The U.S.-Soviet effort is a good one, Boye said. "These superpowers are cooperating to save lives, rather than take lives."