- Associated Press - Thursday, June 17, 2010

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 ($94,500 U.S.).

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 30,000 Australian dollars an hour to operate.

In the meantime, the French territory of Reunion Island diverted three ships to Miss 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 Miss Sunderland’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.

Miss Sunderland’s boat 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 her 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 21.1 million square miles — 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 Miss Sunderland’s rescue recalled a few other expensive operations by Australia’s maritime services.

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