Stranded in the South Atlantic

Industry vet Bob Bonifas spends 10 days on remote island
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Friday, April 27, 2012

AURORA, Ill.—As a veteran of the alarm industry, Bob Bonifas knows how important redundancy is for central stations. As a global adventurer recently stranded on a sub-Antarctic island, he now knows it’s crucial for passenger ships, too.

Bonifas, president and CEO of Alarm Detection Systems, based here, was among 73 passengers stranded for 10 days on South Georgia Island after engine problems crippled their cruise ship, the 293-foot Plancius. The vessel was on a 31-day sightseeing tour, bound from Argentina to Ascension Island by way of Antarctica.

Bonifas said the trouble occurred April 9 off the coast of South Georgia, a desolate former whaling outpost about 800 miles northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship had taken the passengers to see a colony of 200,000 penguins on the island, then turned east to visit the volcanic archipelago of Tristan da Cunha.

“We got about 15 minutes out when we had engine failure,” said Bonifas, who spoke to Security Systems News via satellite phone on April 19 while aboard the rescue ship Ushuaia en route to Uruguay. He said the crew aboard Plancius was able to fix the problem, but the engines soon failed again.

“They ultimately decided not to go out into the open ocean,” he said. “If we had been a day out we would have really been in trouble, because the seas there are very rough and ships without power can get caught sideways in the wind with very bad results. We were lucky that way.”

Bonifas said the experience taught him two valuable lessons.

“First of all, you realize how vulnerable you are out here,” he said. “If you have a heart attack, while there’s a doctor on board, there’s only so much he can do. The second part is, we’re in the central station business, all of our stuff has to be redundant—two of everything, and in fact most of us have three computers and four power supply sources and a couple of generators. But there’s a single point of failure on a boat, at least on many of them. It’s not the generators—they have three generators—but there’s one transformer, and the transformer burned out. It’s hard to believe.”

The time the ship spent docked on South Georgia proved to be a test for Bonifas, who said he “doesn’t like to sit around.” The island is home to a British scientific research station but has no permanent residents. It is probably best known as the place where Sir Ernest Shackleton found safe haven after his aborted trans-Antarctic expedition in 1916.

“There’s a city called Grytviken, and I say city but it’s not a city anymore, it was the whaling capital of the Antarctic where the ships would bring their whales to process,” he said. “There’s a church and a museum there. Other than that, we did a couple of hikes up in the mountains. Three of the days it was raining and it was colder than heck, so you didn’t go outside.”

Bonifas had the only satellite phone among the passengers, which helped occupy the time—he logged about 1,500 minutes on the island. He said from the deck of the rescue ship that he had just ordered another 500 minutes “because [they] go fast. I’ve let a lot of people use it to call home and arrange airplane flights.”

Bonifas isn’t a stranger to spending time in remote places. He is ranked No. 3 on MostTraveledPeople.com, a website that tracks adventurers trying to become the first to visit 872 global destinations. South Georgia was the 800th destination for Bonifas, but his quest to add further to the list was put on hold when Plancius’ engines failed.

“I’ve never been through anything like this before, and I travel a lot,” he said. “Lots of airplanes are canceled or detoured and all kinds of stuff, but nothing that lasts this long.”