Lost and Found: Cruise Ship Valor and the Thanksgiving Miracle – Chapter 1

Published on: March 2023

Expert Insight:
Replacing Miracles with AI – Chapter 1
Brent Bergan BD & Govt. Relations

On the 24th of November 2022, the Carnival cruise ship Valor departed New Orleans for Cozumel, Mexico. At 11pm on the first night, passenger James Michael Grimes left his group and later the next day his family were unable to locate him. The cruise ship personnel searched for the passenger and, when they were unable to find him, they declared him overboard. The search window was a 15–20-hour gap of time covering 200 nautical miles (nm) of open ocean.

When the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) was notified, they faced a staggering potential search area of around 7,000 square nautical miles. In the end, they found him because of his will power and a lot of luck. I wanted to share my thoughts with you on this story because I flew search and rescue (SAR) helicopters for the USCG for 13 years. Now I work for Sentient Vision Systems who produce optical AI products that vastly improve and revolutionize the standard maritime search process.

When faced with a search for a person in the water (PIW), it’s difficult and tedious work – a perfect scenario for AI processing. Sentient developed the world’s first optical radar technology, utilizing advanced AI for maritime search and detection missions called: Visual Detection and Ranging known as ViDAR.

ViDAR augments the human in the loop and greatly expands the search capability of the search crew. Modern maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters and UAVs have embraced optical AI processing for conducting these types of searches and ViDAR has and will continue to save lives.

However, James Michael, the cruise ship passenger from the Valor, spent 20 hours in the Gulf Of Mexico in 70-degree (21C) waters waiting for rescue, treading water. As reported in “Insider Magazine”, James Michael was “seconds from death” when rescued. Through pure luck, and coordination from the USCG, a passing merchant ship spotted him at sea, enabling a rescue by a nearby U.S. Coast Guard H-60 Jayhawk.

If not for luck of the merchant ship, the USCG would have had to follow the 200 nm track of the cruise ship to try and find the passenger because they didn’t know where he fell off the ship. Trying to find a PIW is really difficult and the standard search process hasn’t changed since the beginning of airborne search and rescue. There just hasn’t been a way to find a PIW without the crew looking out the window for hours on end at the churning seas, trying to find the proverbial needle in the middle of the vast ocean – until now, with AI processing and ViDAR.

My PIW Sea Story

I had a similar experience flying a SAR case out of Air Station Miami several years prior. A dive boat reported a missing diver, and we were over the top of the dive boat in our MH-65 Dolphin within 30 minutes off West Palm Beach. For a typical search for a PIW, you’ll fly a small box pattern about 4 nm by 4 nm with the track spacing of 0.1 nm. The track spacing is so small because it’s extremely difficult to find a person in the water.

For this one SAR box we essentially flew 144 nm in 1.89 hours, as each search leg would be 4 nm long, and each mile of the search box would have consisted of ten legs, with a total of 40 search legs over 4 nm. In this one case, we flew three sorties over the top of the missing diver with hefty white caps and chop, and we never found him. Four experienced crew members peered out the windows flying more than 6 hours – we knew he was there, but we just could not find him.

Fortunately, this story also had a happy ending with another example of divine intervention, or pure luck. The diver was found the next day during a first light search with a second crew. However, the diver was in the Gulf Stream where the current pushed him north at 5-7 kts.

The search pattern overnight moved between 50-70 nm north and expanded massively at the same time due to the potential for drift. In the next helicopter flying north for a first light Hail-Mary search, the rescue swimmer just happened to look down, not even in the search pattern, and spotted him. After the diver was picked up, he reported we flew over him repeatedly the day before, but we just couldn’t see him – it’s that difficult to find a PIW.

About the author
Brent Bergan joined Sentient in July 2021 after retiring from the US Coast Guard following a 23 year career where he flew search and rescue helicopters for 13 years and worked in international affairs for eight years. He has written for aerospace media including the helicopter publication, Vertical Magazine, for 13 years.

Image credit : Carnival Valor Cruise Ship (3) by Chris Gent from Orlando, Fla., USA