Sunderland: ‘I Wouldn’t Be Here Today Without SARSAT’


Teen sailor Abby Sunderland.

Teen sailor Abby Sunderland paid a visit to NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility Oct. 22, 2010, to learn more about the search and rescue satellite-aided tracking system — SARSAT— credited with saving her life during her attempt to solo navigate the globe this year.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA.)

Abby Sunderland, the 16-year-old sailor pulled from the Indian Ocean in June during her solo voyage around the world, visited NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility (NSOF) in Suitland, Md., on October 22 to applaud the rescue system and thank the staff that helped save her life.

“I wouldn’t be here today without SARSAT,” Sunderland said, referring to the search and rescue satellite-aided tracking system. 

NOAA’s polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia’s Cospas spacecraft, are the backbone of the international COSPAS-SARSAT system. It uses a network of satellites to quickly detect and locate distress signals from emergency beacons onboard aircraft and boats, and from smaller, handheld personal locator beacons.

Beacon Brings Help From Above

On June 20, while slightly more than halfway through Sunderland’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe, dangerously rough seas and strong winds overturned and dismasted her 40-foot sailboat.  Sunderland immediately activated her two electronic emergency beacons, which initiated the search and rescue process.

“It was already dark,” Sunderland recalled. “My [boat] engine was full of water, and I couldn’t get it started.”

Creamer, Moran and Sunderland.

NOAA SARSAT’s Beth Creamer and NOAA Corps Capt. Mark Moran with teen sailor Abby Sunderland (center) overlooking the control room at NOAA’s Satellite Operations Facility in Suitland, Md. (Oct. 22, 2010).

High resolution (Credit: NOAA.)

An Indian geostationary satellite first captured Sunderland’s distress signal, but could not pinpoint her exact location because of the spacecraft’s fixed position more than 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface. The satellite, however, was able to relay information from the signal, which ended up at the U.S. Mission Control Center at NSOF.

NOAA had Sunderland’s beacon registration on file and alerted the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard. They in turn contacted Sunderland’s family for more specific details on her whereabouts.  Then, a NOAA polar-orbiting satellite detected Sunderland’s signal and was able to determine her precise location.  The next day, an Australian search plane used this information to locate Sunderland about midway between Africa and Australia, and established radio contact with her.  A nearby French fishing vessel was redirected to her location, took her aboard and delivered her to shore. 

Sunderland with NOAA employees.

Abby Sunderland (far left) with members of NOAA SARSAT’s emergency beacon registration team: Alberta Hawkins, Latoya Snowden, Marie Britton, Louis Hawkins and Gene Shaffer.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA.)

“Her signal was detected by an Indian satellite, located by a US satellite, relayed by ground stations in India and Pakistan, and her rescue was undertaken by Australia and France,” said Capt. Mark P. Moran, a NOAA Corps officer. “This is a great example of the international cooperation that has been the hallmark of COSPAS-SARSAT since its inception in 1982.”

“I was amazed how fast the rescue happened,” said Sunderland. “I was expecting it to take weeks, but it only took two days.”

 “Abby did the right thing by registering her beacon,” added Capt. Moran.  “Once we received the signal, we were able to use the registration information to contact her family and more quickly figure out her general location.”

Sunderland, now 17, made the visit to NSOF with her younger brother Toby, also a sailing enthusiast.  Her older brother Zac was the first teen to solo circumnavigate the globe by boat in 2009.

SARSAT: A Lifesaver Many Times Over

Now in its 28th year, COSPAS-SARSAT has been credited with supporting more than 28,000 rescues worldwide, and nearly 6,500 in the United States and its surrounding waters.
“SARSAT is so reliable,” Sunderland added. “It’s very reassuring to know there is a system like it out there.”

Posted Oct. 28, 2010 NOAA logo.