THE AMVER HISTORY
The story behind the famous worldwide voluntary reporting system.
AMVER officially came to life on 15 April 1958 through the efforts of the United States Coast Guard and several commercial shipping representatives. Originally known as the Atlantic Merchant Vessel Emergency Reporting (AMVER) System, it became operational on 18 July 1958. In 1971, the system was formally expanded across the globe as operations were shifted to Washington D.C. and hosted on a Control Data Corporation mainframe computer at the Department of Transportation Systems Center.
AMVER’s name required revision once again to reflect its global reach. But at this point, the AMVER acronym was so well known in the industry that the Coast Guard was reluctant to change it. Instead, the title was changed to the “Automated (computerized) Mutual-assistance (its basic premise) Vessel Rescue (its stated purpose) System”.
Today, due to its global acceptance and familiarity, it is simply called AMVER. AMVER moved beyond the sea and played a crucial role in the U.S. space program in the 1960s and 1970s. As part of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab Programs, AMVER provided the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a prospective maritime support plan in the event of a space flight emergency.
The world’s oldest maritime radio station, Sweden’s Gothenburg Radio (SAG) which began operating in 1905, was the original radio network participant in 1958. Within just two years of its inception, the AMVER System database had grown to 5,000 vessels for an average of 770 ships “on plot” during 24 hours. The system began receiving sail plans, position, diversion, and final (arrival) report from all around the world. Although today several “regional” systems have been created, AMVER remains the only worldwide ship reporting system. By 1962, Rescue Coordination Centers (RCCs) in England and Ireland began using, search and rescue (SAR) information from AMVER. By 1963, AMVER was creating nautical chart plots worldwide. The system’s technology allowed international SAR agencies to locate a ship in distress and determine the number and type of vessels that were located in the vicinity.
In its first decade of service, AMVER information proved its usefulness in the nautical sector through a variety of rescue and disaster scenarios. In the early years, AMVER-participating ships responded to various situations ranging from an engine room explosion seriously injuring two crewmen on board the M/V CHRYISSI; to a 17-year old Norwegian seaman falling off the M/V GYLFE; a 10-year old boy experiencing sharp abdominal pains on board the M/V WOLVERINE STATE; an SOS fire reporting onboard the Japanese M/V SUWAHARU MARU, and even the joyous event of aiding an expectant mother on board the SS DORIC.
In 1966, the Coast Guard moved its regional headquarters from Customs House to Governors Island, in upper New York Bay. The headquarters move included the AMVER Center and consolidated all New York area Coast Guard activities, including a Rescue Coordination Center. Less than a year later AMVER’s title was changed to the Automated Merchant Vessel Reporting program. AMVER’s second decade was marked by rapid technological progress. Being very adaptive to change AMVER proved its cost-effectiveness as a SAR tool. Let’s not forget that participation was free of charge.
In critical situations such as fires, floods, or medical emergencies, SAR mission coordinators found AMVER invaluable, especially regarding its response time. In 1967, Spanish radio stations Cadiz Radio (EAC), Vigo Radio (EAF), and Santa Cruz de Tenerife Radio (EAT) joined the AMVER network of coastal radio stations. This increased the system’s coverage in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean regions. By 1968, an additional 37 coastal radio stations in the Pacific and 28 in the Atlantic were valuable partners of AMVER and the international effort to pursue and promote safety at sea. As a special thank you to the services provided to the maritime community, frequencies of participating radio stations were published in the quarterly AMVER BULLETIN Magazine. AMVER’s growing reputation pulled in new cooperating radio systems to the network. Twelve stations in the United Kingdom joined in 1978 and were directly responsible for a dramatic increase in the number of participating vessels. By 1980, AMVER Center specialists were processing 2,000 reports every 24 hours.
On October 4th, 1980, AMVER made its mark in the world news media by orchestrating the response to an engine room fire and flooding onboard the Dutch liner PRINSENDAM, carrying 519 passengers and crew. The tanker WILLIAMSBURGH, the M/V GREATLAND, the S/S SOHIO INTREPID, and the S/S PORTLAND were diverted to assist. The 1,095-foot tanker WILLIAMSBURGH arrived on the scene in less than 7 hours, and ultimately rescued 175 survivors on board lifeboats, motor launches, and life rafts. In recognition of AMVER’s role in the safe evacuation of everyone on board, the Government of Norway decided that all its merchant ships participate in the AMVER System. In 1982, database maintenance operations were shifted to two Prime 750 minicomputers installed at the Operations Computer Center on Governors Island. In October of 1982, the first joint AMVER / satellite-alerting rescue occurred, using the experimental Argos and CospasSarsat system. December of that year saw the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Coast Guard sign an agreement making AMVER participation mandatory for U.S.-flag ships and suspending the requirement for the filing of reports to the overlapping USMER reporting system. This benefited many U.S. masters, already AMVER participants, who were juggling reports to two parallel systems, and allowed for a consolidated plotting of all U.S. ships worldwide. On the occasion of the concurrent 25th Anniversaries of AMVER and the International Maritime Organization in 1983, IMO published an open letter to all mariners, endorsing the value of the AMVER System. That year, AMVER participation grew by 16 percent. In 1985, a snapshot of AMVER’s previous three years found that the system had tracked 87,543 voyages. The decision was made in the late 1980s to become even more proactive in AMVER recruitment by exhibiting at or attending, industry exhibitions and trade shows, such as Posidonia (Greece); the Seatrade Tanker Show (UK); SMM (Germany); Cruise Shipping (USA); SASMEX (UK); NEVA (Russia); Maritime Cyprus and Super Yacht (France). The U.S. Coast Guard also created an annual AMVER Awards Program as a way of rewarding those ships which remain “on plot” for at least 128 days in a calendar year. These awards have become instrumental in AMVER recruitment and retention.
AMVER Awards are a tribute to the support of a ship’s crew, management, and ownership, which is so integral to the program’s success. AMVER Award ceremonies have been hosted by U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad and by maritime industry organizations such as the Norwegian Shipowners Association, the German Shipowners Association, and the Propeller Club of the United States (Ports of Piraeus, London, and Limassol) amongst others. The awards consist of a Letter of Appreciation to the company, a Certificate of Merit for each ship, and a colored AMVER pennant, representing a ship’s continuous participation in the program – Blue for one year, Gold for five years, and Purple for ten years. A wooden plaque is presented for 15 years, an engraved pewter alloy plate for 20 years, and an acrylic globe with a plate for 25 years. In addition, several special annual awards have been subsequently created by leading maritime organizations honoring ships involved in rescues requiring extraordinary ship handling, heroism, or danger. With the advent of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), the role of AMVER was redefined to complement the emerging technology. Rescue coordination centers around the world seized on the value of Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBS), Inmarsat-C, and Digital Select Calling terminal auto-alarms to “take the search out of search and rescue.” Thus, attention could be turned to AMVER as a tool for the rescue phase of the operation. As the industry became familiar with this technology, AMVER-participating ships have been instrumental in investigating potentially accidental alerts, thus saving limited SAR resources for actual emergencies, and saving money and lives. The beginning of the 1990s brought to the surface a need for the entire software package of AMVER to be rewritten in UNIX/Windows technology to keep pace with the evolution of data processing. This new version would provide more capacity; mechanisms for recurrent routings and maintaining ships on station (e.g., research ships or fishing factory ships); graphic plot depiction; and parser capability. The home of the AMVER Center was moved to the Operations Systems Center, a new facility designed and built to consolidate many Coast Guard computer systems at Martinsburg, West Virginia. Contracted out to civilian operation, this facility released many staff members for reassignment throughout the Coast Guard.
In 1992, an AMVER-participating ship recovered the famous French yachtswoman Florence Arthaud after her trimaran capsized during a solo race. This resulted in AMVER’s first exposure on national network television on the NBC “Today” show. Host Joe Garagiola conducted a live interview with Ms. Arthaud while a filmed segment, shot in the Rescue Coordination Center on Governors Island, explained AMVER. During the Columbus Quincentennial celebrations in New York, AMVER hosted the arrival of the 35 Tall Shipmasters of OPSAIL 1992 to a receiving line of dignitaries including Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card, Senator Frank Lautenberg, and Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral John Kime. The AMVER rescue of explorer Tim Severin from the 60-foot bamboo sailing junk HSU FU, while reenacting the voyage of its Chinese namesake in the year 218 BC, received mention in the pages of National Geographic magazine. In 1994, a television crew from “60 Minutes New Zealand,” aboard a vintage PBY plane, filmed the actual ditching of the aircraft at sea and their rescue by a Norwegian AMVER-participating ship. Later that year, six AMVER-participating ships converged on the burning Italian cruise ship ACHILLE LAURO to rescue 504 of the 976 survivors. And, in the largest single AMVER operation in its history, a flotilla of 41 ships from 18 nations searched over six days to recover the only two survivors of the 31 crew members from the sunken bulk carrier SALVADOR ALLENDE. As AMVER sought to enhance its stature in the international arena, award ceremonies featured the first participation by a sitting Head of State, President Glafkos Clerides of Cyprus. Other presentation officials included Prince Albert of Monaco and Secretary-General William O’Neil of the International Maritime Organization.
In 1995, the AMVER Visitors Center in New York City hosted a visit by King Harald and Queen Sonja of Norway, following in the footsteps of his father, King Olav V, who also visited the AMVER Center in 1968. Other distinguished guests at the AMVER Visitors Center have included former National Security Advisor Vice Admiral John Poindexter; Mr. Vasily Kuprianovsky, Personal Advisor to Russian President Yeltsin; Greek Coast Guard Rear Admiral Nicholas Kalyvas; cruise ship OCEANOS SAR mission coordinator; South African Air Force Colonel George Hallowes; Turkish Coast Guard Commandant Rear Admiral Ekmel Totrakan; Mr. Christoph Hinz, Director General of the German Ministry of Transport; as well as classes of the World Maritime University and industry, media, military, and diplomatic officials from many nations. Today, over 22,000 international ships participate in AMVER. An average of 4,000 ships are added to the AMVER plot each day. The AMVER Center computer receives over 14,000 AMVER messages a day. But what is most important is that over 2,800 lives have been saved by AMVER participating ships since 2000. The success of AMVER is directly related to the extraordinary cooperation of ships, companies, SAR authorities, communication service providers, and governments in supporting this international humanitarian program to protect life and property at sea. In the coming years, AMVER officials will turn their attention to negotiating with other nations and major national ship registries, to solicit their endorsement and active encouragement of ships under their purview to enroll in the AMVER System, thus keeping it vibrant, vital, and successful. AMVER will continue to work with commercial ship tracking companies seeking new ways to integrate their clients’ vessel positions into the AMVER System and will also act as a resource for SAR authorities managing maritime incidents in the newly navigable waters of the Arctic.