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Strangers log on to help satellite search for missing schooner

  • nina660.jpg

    In this undated photo provided by Maritime New Zealand the yacht Nina, center, is tied at dock at a unidentified location. (AP/Maritime New Zealand)

  • NINA sighting.jpg

    A faint objected resembling a ship was spotted by volunteers virtually searching the Tasman Sea on Tomnod.com. The find helped volunteers in the region and online to narrow their search of the missing schooner Niña.Tomnod.com

An American family and crew aboard a 69-foot vintage sailboat last heard from in June could still be alive, according to relatives, who have turned to satellite images and strangers to scour the vast Tasman Sea.

David Dyche, an experienced sailor who works for a U.S. shipping company, was sailing the Nina from New Zealand to Australia with his wife, teenage son and four-member crew when they hit rough weather in June. In a desperate message to shore, Dyche said the boat’s sail had been shredded, leaving it adrift hundreds of miles from shore.

An aerial search mounted nearly two weeks later turned up nothing, but family members have enlisted help from a Texas volunteer search group and a hi-tech company, using satellite images and crowd-sourcing, Maritime blog gCaptain first reported. They believe they may even have proof the vessel is still afloat.

“People are poring over every picture, every pixel,” Luke Barrington, founder of Tomnod, a crowdsourcing company recently acquired by DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite imagery mapping company that is helping in the search, told FoxNews.com.

Tomnod.com, named after the Mongolian phrase for “Big Eye,” utilizes pictures from parent company DigitalGlobe, posting them on a website where volunteers can log on to help hunt for the Nina. While amateurs working from home don’t have the skills of professional searchers, they more than make up for it with sheer numbers.

Experts say if the Nina stayed afloat, the occupants could survive nearly indefinitely, with rainwater and fish to sustain them. Dyche, who has spent years sailing around the globe, set out May 29 with his wife, 17-year-old son and crew of four aboard the Nina, an 85-year-old schooner that won the famous British Isles Fastnet race in 1928.

"This crew is experienced and can survive at sea with natural resources, including fresh water from rain and food from fishing and that stored on board," reads a statement from Texas Equusearch Mounted Search and Recovery Team, a volunteer organization that has searched for more than 1,300 missing  persons around the world and claims to have found more than 300. "We believe from our study of the information, the ship is adrift and those aboard are alive and waiting to be found."

The plan was for the family to make one last voyage together before David Dyche IV went off to college. They left the New Zealand port town of Opua and headed for Newcastle, Australia, knowing the seas would be rough.

“People are poring over every picture, every pixel.”

- Luke Barrington, founder of satellite imaging company Tomnod.

"The Tasman Sea is shooting gales out like a machine gun, living up to its reputation," the elder Dyche posted on Facebook three days before they embarked.

In addition to Dyche, 58, wife Rosemary Dyche and their son, all of Panama City, Fla., the ship was carrying Evi Nemeth, 73, of Colorado; Danielle Wright, 19, of Baton Rouge, La.; Kyle Jackson, 27, of Bassett, Neb.; and Matthew Wooten, 35, of Great Britain.

On June 4, some 350 nautical miles from land, the Nina hit 60 mph winds and 25-foot swells. The crew was last heard from that day, when New Zealand-based meteorologist Bob McDavitt got a text from Nemeth.

"ANY UPDATE 4 NINA?.... EVI," read the text.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force mounted an aerial search eleven days later, scanning nearly 100,000 nautical miles of sea to no avail. But the island nation’s Rescue Coordination Centre later found an undelivered text in the satellite phone system used by the schooner Nina, which is the last confirmed message sent from the ship.

"THANKS STORM SAILS SHREDDED LAST NIGHT, NOW BARE POLES. GOINING 4KT 310DEG WILL UPDATE COURSE INFO @ 6PM," read the text, also sent June 4.

Would-be rescuers theorize that a lightning strike or some other damage could have knocked out the ship’s engine and communications capabilities, leaving Dyche and his family and crew powerless against the ocean currents. They believe an image that turned up on a satellite photo in September could be proof that the Nina never capsized or sank.

“Nothing conclusive so far, but a couple of things have been found,” Barrington said, referring to the image found Sept. 16, which shows a shape similar to the Nina in the water.

Based on the location of the image, volunteers on Tomnod’s website and seasoned searchers Texas EqquSearch -- which conducts aerial searches -- have narrowed its search field to a 6,200-square-mile perimeter. Tomnod has compiled more than 50 images from five satellites of the Tasman, with each image covering 620 square miles. The images have been viewed some 3.7 million times online, presumably by volunteer, virtual searchers.

Narrowing the search field with satellite imagery can help make the task of finding one small sailboat on an endless sea more like finding a nail in a haystack than a needle. Ralph Baird, of Texas EqquSearch, which has helped in more than 1,300 international searches, said his group has conducted 500 hours of aerial searches over the Tasman after being contacted by relatives.

“We haven’t found much,” Baird said. “Sometimes finding nothing means hope because we can still search and find something.”

Of the technology, which Tomnod is currently using to map the destruction in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan, Baird said it could change what his organization does.

“It will revolutionize search-and-rescue efforts,” Baird said.