Florida divers safe despite harrowing ordeal

Two recreational divers who spent the day exploring a reef 10 miles off the coast of Florida in April were separated from their vessel in a situation eerily similar to that of the hapless divers in the recent thriller Open Water. Only this story has a happy ending.

The divers, Vickie Drebing and an unnamed male companion, were separated following an April 9 dive, leaving Drebing adrift, downwind and downcurrent from their anchored vessel.

A stronger swimmer, her companion made it back to the support boat and, with darkness falling, his VHF out of range of costal stations, and Drebing out of sight, he deployed his ACR Electronics AquaFix personal locator beacon, a portable 406 EPIRB. The signal was first received by a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite at 1858 local time and was relayed to the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center at the Langley base in Virginia, according to ACR reports. A subsequent hit to the GOES at 1901 included GPS location data that showed the beacon’s position in the Gulf off Bradenton. This new information was forwarded to the AFRCC and to the Rescue Coordination Center in Miami or the U.S. Coast Guard one minute later. The RCC in Miami deployed the closest available rescue Coast Guard station.

At 2010, the 41-foot Coast Guard rescue boat from Station Cortez arrived and began search patterns. Drebing’s companion was also using his GPS to do passes in his boat.

Meanwhile at the Cospas/SARSAT Mission Control Center, additional hits were being recorded on the polar orbiting Low Earth Orbit Search and Rescue satellite. The 406-MHz transmission was first picked up at 1947 and the Doppler position resolved at 1951.

This information was also forwarded to the RCC in Miami. Had the PLB not provided GPS data, this would have been the first notification the Coast Guard received.

When Drebing saw the Coast Guard boat in the distance performing search patterns, she activated the strobe light from her underwater camera. She was soon aboard the Coast Guard vessel.

Chris Wahler, director of marketing for ACR, credited the FastACQ GPS software in the AquaFix for providing the GPS data. “FastACQ is specifically designed for cold-start applications like this,” Wahler said. “Transmitting GPS data in the early stages of activation is the big advantage of GPS-enabled beacons.”

By Ocean Navigator