City eyes sonar for underwater searches

Searcher says grant money may be available, but expertise is needed

Posted: Tuesday, March 09, 2004

City leaders told Gene Ralston Monday night he bought himself "a first-class ticket to heaven" and that they are impressed with the equipment he used to recover a body.

Ralston, from Boise, Idaho, found Charles "Charlie" Jacobs' body Saturday, three weeks after he disappeared near the sailboat he called home at Auke Bay. He said the thank-you letter from Mayor Bruce Botelho and City Manager Rod Swope was the best he had ever received.

"This will go up on the wall," he said at the Glacier Fire Station, where he showed interested people how sonar can help in searches.

There was one person he couldn't answer.

Annette G.E. Smith, a member of the local dive team that spent five days looking for Jacobs after he was reported missing, asked what it would take for the city to invest in sonar equipment to conduct underwater searches.

Earlier Monday, Swope said sonar would be a great thing for city emergency crews to have "if we were to find the funding."

He said grant funding is most available in support of homeland security.

Ralston said the side-scan sonar he uses is on the approved list of items that can be purchased with homeland security grants, perhaps because it may find bombs on the bottoms of boats.

Ralston said the sonar he owns costs about $33,000. He tows the torpedo-shaped unit behind a boat. Auke Bay, with its numerous underwater cables, presented challenges that required him to borrow a demonstration sonar unit from a Scandinavian company, Kongsberg Simrad, and its sales office in Vancouver, B.C.

The pivoting sonar dangled from a tripod that placed it about four feet above the sea bed. During the Auke Bay search, that put it 100 feet or more below the surface.

"People think you can buy the equipment and run right out and find the body," he said. "It takes a bit of experience."

Ralston said he has been involved in search and rescue since the 1980s and bought the sonar equipment 3 1/2 years ago through his business as a hydrologist.

He showed images of search results stored in his computer. Sonar uses sound waves to chart what is in the water. The varying rates at which they return provide a picture of what is out there. Saturday, after about 10 hours of searching, he found what he was looking for in a shadow where the sound waves didn't return.

"I don't rule out anything anymore," he said.

He said he knows of counties in California that have purchased sonar equipment and have never found anything with it. But judging from the quality of the questions in the room, he said Juneau would seem to have some community expertise.

"The biggest thing is having a competent operator," said Paul Weltzin, one of the people with technical questions Monday. Having done work as a commercial diver, including in Auke Bay, he said he was surprised and impressed to read that Ralston found Jacobs.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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