Monday 22 October 2018

Cautionary Tale - Iridium Emergency Plan Disabled last June !

An expensive piece of kit we hope never to need.  Testing in Auckland.

We found out on the weekend that one of the layers in our risk mitigation strategy - the sim card for our handheld satphone - had been disable months ago and we had not been notified by our airtime provider. If you have, or think you have, a Iridium Emergency Annual Plan we recommend you check with your airtime provider.  Iridium changed the plan and rather than the common-sense solution of waiting until annual contracts had expired and then simply charging the new higher price, they simply cancelled the cards with minimal notice (or in our case, no notice).

It is shades of our friends on SV Rebel Heart dramas of a few years ago.  One element in the loss of their boat and the rescue that garnered large amounts of visibility in the mainstream American media was the unsolicited cancellation of their satphone sim card while crossing the Pacific (by a different airtime company than we are using).  Wavetrain wrote about it here:


Not surprisingly since we often travel to relatively remote locations with our family onboard we are quite conservative in our risk management.  It is best of course to avoid having any need to use the safety equipment but if there is a need, we need to have confidence that our kit works.

Our emergency communications plan follows that philosophy.  Our regular day to day long range communications are through our Iridium Go device which gives us basic email, voice and data.  This is backed up with our High Frequency radio/Pactor modem that provided our primary comms for the first few years of cruising.  In the event of an actual emergency we have an EPRIB backed up by two PLBs (one in the cockpit and one packed in the liferaft).  

In theory this should be sufficient but I learned a few nuggets of info when teaching a  VHF Restricted Operator Certificate (ROC(M)) course (the qualification in Canada to operate a marine VHF FM radio - I used to be an examiner for the qualification) a few years ago.  Some of the students were from the local Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) and they were describing assisting a Canadian vessel requiring rescue in the Brazilian RCC area of responsibility.  The Brazilian RCC kept insisting that it was likely a false alarm and were delaying initiating the rescue.  The takeaway lesson was that with a satphone one can call straight to RCC - the local one and/or the "home" one - and confirm it is really a no duff emergency and not a false alarm.  Knowing some of the good folks at the Halifax RCC, I would be calling them first to act as our advocates.    Because of this, we have an Iridium Extreme Handheld that lives in our primary ditch bag that would come into the life raft with us.  I have the local and Halifax RCC numbers in the speed dial.

The Iridium Extreme Handheld.

One of our pre-passage checklist items is to charge the Iridium handheld.  This time I checked that it would actually dial (not a cheap check at $US7.00/minute) and got a sim card error.  I checked on my account with the airtime provider to find out that my account had been deactivated in June (only weeks after I had confirmed it worked before leaving NZ)!  We also have our Iridium Go airtime with the same company so they have been happily sending us bills for the Go monthly via our Gmail and Sailmail (our at sea email address) email accounts every month.  Once I found a real person to talk to at the company they told me that Iridium had cancelled the Annual Emergency Plan in June and following an email going out, everybody's plan was cancelled.  Unfortunately we did not receive any emails on either of the email accounts we have registered with them nor did they mail a notice to our "shore office" (Liz's parents in Halifax).

The Iridium Go

The Iridium Go is also waterproof and we have a waterproof case on our iPad so this combo could act as a back up to the EPRIB.  However, based on my limited experience in life rafts at sea or in the wave/wind pool on sea survival courses I am not sure I want to rely on these tools in a bouncy and wet liferaft.  The Iridium Go is on our list of items to bring in the liferaft if we have enough time as one cannot have too much redundancy but it not our first choice for comms from the liferaft.  The Go also has a "red button" one can press in the event of distress but we recently found out ours does not work and the device is outside of its warranty.  We tried to see if our airtime provider could get it fixed for us even though it is out of warranty but that was a dead end.

At this point, we are not sure what we are going to do.  To reactivate the Emergency Plan we need a new sim card from the US and it is debatable how long it would take to ship to Savusavu, Fiji. As much as we love Savusavu we need to get moving north before the cyclone season starts in earnest.  Another plan would be to ship the sim card to the Marshall Islands and plan to not sink in the almost 2000nm between here and there.  RCC Halifax: if you get an EPRIB signal from us, assume it is not a false alarm please...

Now to reduce my blood pressure after writing about this mess ... dreaming of returning to Ailuk.

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