It has become customary that whenever the Southern Shamaal, PE to East London Surf Ski Race comes to town, Port Elizabeth’s Station 6 comes to the rescue.
For the last 6 years, Station 6 has provided water safety for the PE to East London Surf Ski Race. The race has been taking place ever 2 years and Station 6 has always been on hand to assist.
This year the Station 6 Shamaal Rescue Team comprised of 23 volunteers. These volunteers gave up 4 days of their December to be a part of this team. Some of them donated their 4×4 vehicles and some of them donated their private 4.2m boats to act as rescue craft. All in all there were 7 vehicles, 3 x 4.2m rubber ducks and 1 x large rescue vessel.
The start of the race is always very early in the morning. This years race started at 5am due to the weather conditions not playing their part. The wind was forecast to be blowing east and getting stronger throughout the day. This poses a problem for the paddlers as they would have to beat into a headwind for 75km. The organises moved to their contingency plan which was to race from Blue Water Bay to Sundays River and back to Blue Water Bay again.
This turned out to be a blessing for Sea Rescue as the ailing Spirit of Toft started having engine troubles half way through the first day and sheared her balancing bolts on the starboard engine. This meant that the 10m Rescue craft which was commissioned for the race was now out of commission. The Spirit of Toft was paramount to our water safety plan as she was to act as the relay station when the vehicles were not able to be on the coastline.
With the day end back at Blue Water Bay, Spirit of Toft was able to limp back to the PE Harbour to assess the damage and the rest of the crews were able to load up the 4.2m ducks and had for Woody Cape for the nights stop.
The access to the beach for the beach patrol vehicles at Woody Cape was not conducive for trailers and boats. Only the vehicles themselves could get over the dunes. This meant that the Beach Patrol Vehicles along with the 4.2m Ducks, had to back track to the West side of the Woody Cape Cliffs to launch the boats. The posed a serious problem as the dune field that needed to be crossed would have tested some of the Dakar drivers. The distance as the crow flies from the start of the dunes to the coast is 1.4nm and starts off at 200m above sea level. We were able to conquer the dune field by winding 3.7nm down to the coast. For any avid 4×4 driver, this is an experience that will always stay with you.
The 4.2m Rescue boats were eventually launched through the surf at Perdevlei. The easterly was now quite stiff and the swells were sitting up at around 3m at sea. The trip took them well over an hour to cover 9nm. The Beach Patrol vehicles still had to navigate their way out of the dune fields with the majority of their tracks covered over by the stiff easterly. If it wasn’t for modern days GPS’s we would probably still be in the dune field.
The start of day 2 also brought a new Rescue Boat to the Shamaal Team. Jean Pretorius from Station 11 very kindly brought their 9m rescue craft to assist in the water safety of the race. This was due to the fact the Station 6’s Spirit of Toft was now out of commission.
Race day 2 sees the paddlers leave from the beach at Woody Cape and head for Kenton on Sea as their first checkpoint(30km). From there they have another 23km to the finish at Port Alfred. Day 2 posed a few problems to the Rescue Team as half way through the race, a blanket of mist descended onto the ocean between Kenton and Port Alfred. The communication between the boats and command vehicle was paramount and so was know the amount of paddlers that had not yet finished the race. Have member of the Rescue Team at the finish, recording all the paddlers as they came in and relaying this to the command vehicle proved critical. All rescue boats were herding the paddlers that they had visual into a close unit so that they could guide them into the finish line. The co-ordination between the rescue craft and the command vehicle work brilliantly and all craft were safely escorted to the finish line.
Some days go according to plan. Day 3 was one of those days. The detail for the day was followed according to the plan and the weather also played its part. The only incident of the day was when a paddlers came into the beach in a fairly rocky area to have his lunch. On the way out he managed to clip a rock and had some damage to his boat. We managed to fix it on the shore and send him on his way.
With the forecast changing for the final day, the organisers had to make a call on the direction of the race for the final day. They decided to turn the race on its head and race from Nahoon Beach back to Hamburg. This posed another logistical nightmare for Sea Rescue but it was handled in our professional stride.
The gun went off for day for and within 5 seconds of the gun sounding, I was running down the beach to stop the race. We had to call the paddlers out of the surf and get them back to the beach as their had been an incident with a great white shark on the reef they were about to round. A fishing Kayak had been bumped and reported that a Great White had tried to bite his Kayak. After informing the paddlers of the reason for the emergency stop to the race, they were all very appreciative. The reef was scouted by the rescue craft in the area and the paddlers were warned to take a wide berth of the reef.
Just after the race got under way, one of the double ski’s started having floatation issues. Eventually the seam broke on their craft and their craft started to sink. They fired off flares and the rescue vessel from Station 11 located them and transferred them back to Orient Beach.
The finish was back in Hamburg but during the day, a light easterly had picked up and had caused the surf line in Hamburg to get rather large and nasty. A strong Rip Current had also developed 100m east of the finish line. Most of the paddlers were cutting the corner to the finish and were getting knocked off their ski’s in the surf line. They were having to swim through the surf and this was getting increasingly dangerous. The rescue craft were in and out of the surf assisting paddlers to the beach while their seconders were fetching craft all along the beach.
During this time a woman who was 100m down the beach started scream in panic about a swimmer in the water. It turned out that a bather not associated to the Shamaal Challenge had got caught in the Rip. Rescue 11a was dispatched from their position at the back line towards the casualty. The casualty had already been pulled under 3 times and had swallowed a lot of water. When the rescue craft arrived, he was under the water. Rescue Swimmer Alan Meikeljohn dived in and managed to fetch the casualty from under the water. The casualty was hauled on board and Rescue 11a got through the surf and to the beach where they were met by Sea Rescue medics. Rescue 11a got back into position to assist with the paddlers that still needed to finish. The casualty was treated for near drowning symptoms and shock.
All in all, the Southern Shamaal is a privilege to be a part of. More over, being a part of the Sea Rescue Unit which provides the Water Safety for the event is even a bigger privilege. To all the Men and Woman who gave up their time to assist with this even and save a young mans life on the final day, I salute you.
Your Shamaal Operational Co-ordinater.