ST. JOHN'S -- The inquiry into the sinking of the Arctic Explorer and the death of 13 of its men was to probe further today into whether the crew's distress messages might have gone unheeded.
The 48-meter Explorer sank July 3, 1981, less than three hours after leaving St. Anthony, Nfld.
The 19 survivors drifted in an inflatable raft for 52 hours because the ship was not reported missing for more than 24 hours after sinking.
Coast Guard radio operator Clyde Roberts, who was to resume testifying today, told the inquiry Wednesday that he was on duty at the St. Anthony radio station, 1,000 kilometers north of St. John's, the morning the ship went down.
Roberts heard an unusual radio broadcast at about 8:05 a.m., roughly the same time survivors have indicated the Explorer suddenly listed to starboard, filled with water and sank.
'I didn't report the message because it didn't meet the criteria for a distress call,' he said.
He recorded the message in his radio log as: 'All ships or any ships in the Quirpoon area, come back.'
Quirpoon is an island near the location of the Explorer sinking.
The short message was followed by 'about 15 or 20 seconds' of the sound of an auto-alarm, a two-tone signal built into some marine radios to indicate that a distress message would follow, Roberts said.
In spite of the auto-alarm signal, he said the message did not name a ship, give a fixed position or indicate a 'mayday' situation. 'This wasn't a distress signal,' Roberts said. 'There was no distress signal sent.'
At the time, Roberts said he 'never had the faintest idea where it came from.' He said he is still unsure the message originated from the Explorer.
The radio operator said he understood that an auto-alarm indicated a shore-based radio station was about to relay a distress message.
Aware that radio stations and 'some larger ships' have auto-alarm transmitters, Roberts said he 'wasn't aware smaller boats had them.'
Since the Explorer sinking, coast guard radio stations have been ordered to report hearing any auto-alarm signal -- with or without a distress message -- to search and rescue officials immediately.
Such action was taken in the past by some radio operators, but 'it wasn't a hard and fast rule,' Roberts said.