Rice and rescue for the outer islands from the local airline
Colonia, Yap-- Search and Rescue (SAR) missions are an all-too-frequent occurrence in Micronesia, costing the U.S. government millions of dollars to find lost sailing vessels and their crews and passengers in the millions of square miles of open ocean and remote islands, both inhabited and uninhabited.
The countries in the region have been advised by the U.S. to improve their small craft regulations and require some form of emergency equipment like a large, brightly colored tarp and radar reflectors aboard. According to Amos Collins, Director of Flight Operations for Pacific Mission Aviation in Yap, “Ideally, all small boats should carry an emergency beacon called an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or Personal Location Beacon. They transmit the vessel’s position via satellite to a radio direction finder that has a continuous signal, cutting down on the time required for the search and increasing the time available for the rescue.
“Two years ago,” Collins added, “PMA was involved in a successful sea search where we found a skiff that had been adrift for 36 hours. We were able to relay the coordinates to the Coast Guard who later came and picked up the four men from Fais Island.”
Paul Iyomal of Ifaluk holding the island's first Personal Location Beacon (Photos: PMA)
That event started a quest to help the islands obtain personal location beacons that the men could take with them on voyages to other islands or when they went fishing. However, each PLB costs about $290.00, “so it would require a significant amount of money to acquire enough of them for all the 18 inhabited Islands in Yap State alone,” said Collins. A creative solution was needed to come up with the funds.
“Yap State had a vessel at one time that made quarterly trips through the islands to distribute food, people and supplies,” he explained. “But due to mechanical problems and, ultimately, a decision to send the ship to drydock, Yap was without a reliable means of supporting their islands for over two years. Occasionally the national ship made a trip through the islands, but it was not enough to meet the demand.”
At the end of 2017, in an effort to meet basic food needs of the islands’ residents, PMA began supplying them with rice. An idea was born to use the small profit on the rice to purchase the PLBs.
Whenever there is a flight to Ulithi and Fais that has any space available, PMA fills the remaining space with 20-pound sacks of rice, donating the freight costs so that the people on the receiving end can purchase the rice for the same price they would pay on the mainland. By purchasing the rice in bulk quantities of 100 bags at a time, PMA receives a 10 percent discount, bringing the price down to approximately $8.00 per bag. The bags are then re-sold to the island residents for $10.00 and, for every sack sold, the $2.00 profit goes toward purchasing the PLBs.
Unloading rice in Yap's Outer Islands
“Since January 2018, we’ve raised enough to buy 18 PLB’s,” Collins said. “That’s enough for each inhabited island in Yap State to get one PLB each. We’re excited to get these beacons distributed to the islands and we plan to continue to use this creative solution to purchase more units so the islands can have more than one beacon.”
PMA has also been able to purchase a small Pelican case to keep each PLB dry and protected. Each unit has been registered online and has been assigned to a responsible individual who has access to a high frequency radio. The only requirement for a fisherman to take the PLB when he goes out in his boat is to sign his name on a check-out sheet.
In the event of an actual emergency, the beacon will send its location via satellite to the SAR authorities who will contact PMA and verify that this is an actual emergency. As soon as it is confirmed, the exact coordinates of the boat will be given to the SAR team and the rescue mission can begin.