Countries Paying Cost of Teen’s Rescue Won’t Seek Recompense; Say Rescue Is an International Obligation

June 17, 2010 - 7:36 AM
Readers in online forums and on news sites have questioned the enormous costs of rescuing one teenager who chose to set off alone in winter into a dangerous ocean.
Adelaide, Australia (AP) - The first day Abby Sunderland was stranded in the Southern Ocean, Australia's rescue agency chartered a jet to fly over the area where her emergency beacon was activated.
 
The 11-hour flight cost an estimated 110,000 Australian dollars (US $94,500).
 
The second day, after locating her, the agency sent another plane to coordinate her pickup by ships racing toward her damaged and drifting yacht.
 
The Australian military also deployed two Orion aircraft to wait on an Indian Ocean island in case an airdrop or further assistance was needed. An Orion costs about AU$30,000 an hour to operate.
 
In the meantime, the French territory of Reunion Island diverted three ships to Sunderland's location. The fishing vessel that reached her first lost at least three days of work; a commercial ship also sent to her rescue would have added three or four days of travel time to its intended destination.
 
Her rescue Saturday within two days of setting off the emergency call was welcomed in Australia and in her home state of California. But amid the well-wishers on online forums and news sites were many who questioned why Australia and France were footing the bill for an American teenager's solo quest.
 
Readers in online forums and on news sites have questioned the enormous costs of rescuing one teenager who chose to set off alone in winter into a dangerous ocean.
 
But the countries involved in the rescue effort have brushed off questions about the cost of the rescue and have no plans to seek recompense. Rescues at sea are a no-cost agreement under international conventions regarding maritime search and rescue operations.
 
"That's not the way the law works," Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese told reporters on the weekend. "The Australian taxpayer at the end of the day makes a contribution. But we have to put this in context. If there was an Australian lost at sea we would want ... every effort to be made to save that person."
 
In France, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told an online briefing that Abby's rescue was an international obligation to help those in distress at sea.
 
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was first adopted in 1914 in response to the Titanic disaster. Along with mandating the number of lifeboats and the notification of a ship's routes, it also dictates that any ship in the area of a distress call will divert to assist that ship.
 
Sunderland's ship foundered right on the border of the French and Australian search and rescue regions, thousands of miles from any land. Australia had the resources to send out surveillance aircraft, while Reunion Island had ships close enough to reach Abby within 48 hours. Her rescue was relatively simple because her emergency signal was still working. But the great distances for the journeys by sea and air can add up in fuel, manpower and loss of business costs.
 
"The simple problem involved is that if you have troubles in the Northern Hemisphere, there's plenty of first-world countries that are all close together and can rescue you," said Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defence Association. "But if you run into trouble in the Southern Hemisphere, you're essentially a problem that belongs to South Africa, France, Australia, Chile and Argentina, and there are enormous distances involved."
 
Australia's search-and-rescue region encompasses 52.8 million square kilometers -- 10 percent of the earth's surface.
 
It wasn't the first time Australia has coordinated -- and paid for -- a dramatic sea rescue. The hype surrounding Sunderland's rescue recalled a few other expensive operations by Australia's maritime services.
 
In 1997, Australia spent $6 million to rescue British sailor Tony Bullimore and Frenchman Thierry Dubois, who both went missing while competing in a solo yacht race known as the Vendee Globe. Bullimore survived for several days inside the hull of his overturned yacht, surviving on bits of chocolate and losing two toes to frostbite before being rescued by the Australian Navy just 500 miles (805 kilometers) from Antarctica.
 
A few years earlier, Frenchwoman Isabelle Autissier was rescued -- twice in two years -- at a cost of $5.8 million, causing outrage among Australians who saw their taxes paying for frivolous, selfish pursuits.
 
But this time, there has been little comment on the price tag of the rescue outside of a few online forums. The uproar has instead focused on Sunderland's age -- 16 -- and the wisdom of sailing into the unpredictable swells of the Southern Ocean in winter.
 
Immigration Minister Chris Evans did say last week, however, that the risk of one person's adventure could be too costly to the public.
 
"Clearly, it will be very expensive," Evans said. "Obviously when someone is at risk you have to respond. But I personally have a view that we should be more careful about what we allow people to do in these circumstances."
 
Even the U.S. Sailing Association refused to sponsor Sunderland's bid, considering it too dangerous. She did not have insurance for her trip, and her mother has said there is no way the family could pay the rescuers even if asked.
 
But obviously there is no alternative to the safety at sea regulations.
 
"These rescues are not at all an efficient use of our military and civilian resources," James said. "But the problem is, what happens if you don't do it? There's some real moral dilemmas involved in this. You can't just say, 'Well, you're a stupid idiot,' and let them drown. It would be pretty hard to justify that."