Industry » Safety & Security » Safety Afloat: There’s no Excuse for Being all at Sea

Safety Afloat: There’s no Excuse for Being all at Sea


For more than 40 years, Inmarsat has been trusted with seafarers’ safety. In fact, it was set up in 1979 by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to provide reliable satellite safety communications. Whether it is a storm, a collision or medical emergency, seafarers know that they can rely on Inmarsat’s safety services to get help fast.

Today, Inmarsat continues to ensure its safety services go above and beyond the IMO’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) requirements – by, for example, exceeding the demand for satellite and ground network availability of 99.9%.

Highlighting the various aspects of safety services impacting mariners, search and rescue and maritime safety information providers and explaining cyber security and the Inmarsat satellite ground and space network, OnboardOnline has joined forces with Inmarsat to provide a series of five special articles over the following months.

In the first of the series, Inmarsat Maritime Director of Safety Services, John Dodd, explains the safety services available to leisure sailors...

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The sheer number of leisure sailors who take to the water each year with an inadequate or careless understanding of the equipment, processes and services needed to make their vessels and themselves as safe as possible is a constant source of concern – and dismay.

While there can obviously be no excuse for willful ignorance, a great many otherwise conscientious and responsible sailors routinely fall prey to erroneous assumptions about the extent, coverage and suitability of their sea safety regime. The tacit acceptance of this disinformation inevitably has a direct bearing on the wellbeing of passengers and crew alike. It shouldn’t need pointing out, but merely possessing a satphone, for example, does not equate to safety on the water.

A common misconception concerns the IMO (International Maritime Organisation) GMDSS regulations, mandated under the SOLAS convention for vessels above 300GT and all passenger ships engaged on international voyages. GMDSS (the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System) uses a combination of satellite and terrestrial technology plus shipboard radio equipment as a means of enabling suitably-equipped vessels to transmit an SOS in emergency situations.

But this is where the confusion arises. Too many sailors on leisure yachts or small fishing vessels automatically assume that exemption from GMDSS regulations also means that they aren’t privy to the safety benefits GMDSS provides, while others may baulk at the perceived expense of GMDSS terminals and services. In all respects, this is far from the truth, with ALL Inmarsat GMDSS and non-GMDSS services being free of charge to ALL seafarers.

For our part, Inmarsat has devoted much thought over the years to ensuring that every sailor should be able to embark on voyages with the reassurance of easy access to a Search & Rescue (SAR) authority, wherever they may be located on the world’s oceans. The company was in at the birth of GMDSS in 1999 and has played a key role in the provision of GMDSS satellites services, as the only IMO-approved provider, ever since, as well as supplying a range of non-GMDSS safety services in a bid to serve all vessel types and sizes via the same IMO-approved satellite network.

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Inmarsat C and Mini C terminals and antennas are an illustrative example of affordable GMDSS hardware which consumes a minimal amount of power and is sufficiently light and compact as to be suitable for installation on smaller boats. The service encompasses a variety of safety features, starting with distress alerting: holding down the Dedicated Distress Button for five seconds will transmit an emergency Distress alert if there is no time to manually input information into the terminal, even in areas where terrestrial services cannot be accessed. An integrated GNSS (Global “Navigational Satellite Services) receiver automatically monitors and shares the vessel’s position data, so the appropriate authorities are made aware of its location.

The Inmarsat C and Mini-C service also automatically receives free priority navigational and meteorological messages to heighten safety of navigation, forewarning captains and crew of approaching storm fronts and highlighting issues of potential concern (eg, an out-of-service lighthouse).

In addition, the service is designed to offer the provision of free medical advice and assistance at their fingertips if required – while an IMO-legislated requirement to cover every eventuality has been addressed with the Ship Security Alert System (SSAS), which covertly notifies a designated competent authority if the vessel or passengers have come under the threat of an armed or piracy attack.

While an end-of-life date of 1 Dec 2020 has been set for Inmarsat’s long-standing Fleet 77 service – due to be replaced with FleetBroadband and Fleet Safety– it has been particularly rewarding for me on a personal as well as professional level to have driven the development of Fleet Safety.

Due to enter commercial service at the end of 2019 across all FleetBroadband and Fleet One terminals, the intention behind this new initiative was to fulfil all the same GMDSS functions as Fleet 77 and Inmarsat C/Mini C, but with the addition of enhancements. This includes a Distress Chat facility through which Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre can coordinate a Search and Rescue Operation with multiple Fleet Safety-equipped vessels and Rescue Centres simultaneously within a chat room-style interface, all with Inmarsat full Distress Priority and, of course, free of charge to both the mariner and the Rescue Coordination Centres. Users will also have the option of connecting directly and automatically to the nearest IMO-registered Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre or manually selecting a rescue centre of their choosing.

Another timely sea-safety factor available to Fleet Safety users is MSI Pull, the ability to retrieve Maritime Safety Information (MSI) broadcasts and SAR data that may have been missed while the equipment was turned off or the host vessel was in port.

I alluded earlier to the across-the-board importance (and financial practicality) of augmenting services such as these with non-GMDSS safety incentives available over the same GMDSS-approved satellite and ground infrastructure. Our biggest step in this respect has been the provision of the free 505 emergency call service, automatically accessible on all FleetBroadband and Fleet One terminals. Speed and simplicity are obviously of the essence when urgent help is required at sea, so the 505 service was devised to save precious time that might otherwise be spent feverishly searching directories, under the most stressful circumstances, by routing callers straight through to the international maritime emergency assistance network.

The process is straightforward: all the caller needs to do is dial 505 (easy to remember, looks like SOS) from the handset, which automatically connects them to an appropriate MRCC. The caller will then be prompted to supply, in simple and direct terms, the salient information: the name, telephone number and callsign of their vessel and its last known lat/long location, the number of people on board, the nature and severity of the emergency and the type of assistance required.

The SAR operator can then coordinate with other SAR teams and vessel if needed, and/or provide instructions and advice. As with Inmarsat C, Mini C, FleetBroadband and Fleet Safety terminals also automatically support free medical advice and assistance.

It’s hugely rewarding to know that these measures are palpably making a difference. Via the Network Operations Centre (NOC) in our London HQ, we can report that an average of nine distress alerts are received through Inmarsat every day. On the one hand, it’s a measure of company pride to be able to legitimately claim over 99.9% network availability across the globe for Inmarsat services: but over and above this, the satisfaction that comes from knowing these services are providing imperative assistance in life-or-death situations at sea is immeasurable.

For the NOC, the Maritime Safety Team and myself, it’s very much a case of ensuring that the appropriate MRCC and SAR team are supported every step of the way until each case has been resolved. Safety at sea is an area in which corners should never be cut, and we are unfortunately reminded of this on occasions – in no uncertain terms – in SAR cases wherein yachts have got into trouble through having incorrect or deficient safety equipment on board, with tragic consequences. Conversely, the feeling of elation that comes from seeing sailors being successfully rescued from foundering vessels provides the most visceral motivation to keep pushing; to reinforce the message that every voyage is entirely dependent upon safety, and to constantly improve the efficiency and accessibility of safety services.



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