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A recent callout involving a yacht run aground at Robben Island shows the invaluable role rescue swimmers play in the NSRI’s rescue operations.

On 9 June 2021 just before 8pm, NSRI’s Emergency Operations Centre received a Mayday from a yacht run aground off the eastern side of Robben Island. Station 3 (Table Bay) was contacted to assist and within 15 minutes the Spirit of Day with three crew onboard was making the 7nm journey to the island. Spirit of Vodacom with five crew onboard launched shortly afterwards. Two rescue swimmers were part of the volunteer complement. One of them takes up the story…

"We knew from the Mayday distress call that a vessel had run aground on the eastern side of Robben Island. We also knew there were three people on board. With this type of emergency, we realised the likelihood of needing a rescue swimmer was high so we prepared for the possibility.

I was part of the three-man crew on Spirit of Day with Davide del Fante as coxswain and Class III training coxswain Gustav Roberts that responded first to scene. Visibility was poor in the thick fog, so we had to navigate slowly using our GPS and depth sounder. While navigating the very thick fog, we contacted the casualty vessel via VHF radio and requested that they fire a red parachute distress flare to reveal their location. We spotted the flare, approached the location and saw the grounded vessel through the fog. The sea conditions were favourable with relatively small swells and little-to-no shore breaks.

We decided to send a rescue swimmer over to the vessel with Spirit of Day’s towline to, firstly, make contact with the casualties and assess their condition, to assess the condition of the casualty vessel, and provide feedback to the rescue vessels and, secondly, to attach a temporary towline to the casualty vessel to try and keep it from washing further aground.

I swam over to the vessel with the towline. I stopped about 5m away from the vessel, already feeling the rocks below me, and spoke to the casualties who confirmed they were all fine and had no injuries. I assessed the wave groups (sets of swells) that were moving in, and how the casualty vessel reacted to the swells. The vessel was clearly hard aground at this point. She was rolling severely to starboard when the swells moved past her; even the small shore breaks had a significant impact on the roll angle. We decided not to connect the tow just yet.

I determined that it was, however, safe enough to get onto the vessel between the wave groups to assess the condition of the vessel and whether it was safe to stay onboard. While onboard, the vessel rolled harshly again with a bigger swell moving past and I decided that the safest option for the casualties was to take them off the vessel immediately. The decision was made with the crew of Spirit of Day that the casualties would be guided off the vessel and taken to shore, which was much closer than Spirit of Day, and the conditions were favourable for this. I asked the casualties if they could swim and if they were comfortable in the water. Two were comfortable, but the third was less comfortable but could swim, and understood that this was the safest and only option at this time and that I will be with this person all the way until they were safe.

I explained the planned procedure to all three casualties and proceeded to the stern of the vessel, where it was possible to step off onto the top of the rock on which the vessel was aground. I got off first and then had the casualties get off the vessel one by one, between the wave groups when it was safe to get off. The two casualties who were comfortable in the water slowly waded towards the shore while I assisted the third to shore over the rocks, swimming for a few metres between the rock outcrops. The rocks were slippery, so we had to move slowly.

Once on shore, Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF) personnel assisted the casualties over the loose boulders and out of harm’s way. They were also very helpful at relaying messages and progress updates to the rescue vessels. We really appreciated their assistance on shore. They also provided blankets to keep the casualties warm.

Once the casualties were warm and safe, and had been taken by DEFF personnel to Murray Bay Harbour for collection by Spirit of Vodacom, I swam back to Spirit of Day to find out what else need to be done.

The next step was to determine whether it would be possible and safe to tow the casualty vessel off the rocks. By this time, the swell has become slightly bigger, and the vessel have moved slightly further aground, with swells now occasionally breaking into the casualty vessel. Marc de Vos and I swam over to the vessel, boarded the vessel again between swells to assess the damage and probability of being able to tow the vessel safely.

We decided that connecting a tow line to the casualty vessel while it was rolling heavily would have been too dangerous. Instead, an anchor was rigged by swimming lines (several mooring lines joined together) to try to prevent the vessel from going further aground.

The challenges posed by this particular rescue included poor visibility in dense fog conditions initially. This cleared towards the end of the operation. Taking the casualties off between the wave groups was also a challenge as bad timing could cause injury if the vessel rolled while we were trying to disembark. The rocks between the gullies were slippery and there were a few short sections where the casualties had to swim in the cold water. Two could walk, swim and climb on their own, the third had to be assisted all the way.’

Evacuating the crew from the vessel took around 13 minutes. The success of this callout can be attributed to skill, training and teamwork. NSRI’s rescue swimmer gives kudos to his team. ‘No operation can be a success without teamwork and full trust in your fellow crew members. Each person on any operation will have a role to play that is important to the outcome of the operation. We are all constantly looking out for each other, making sure we always stay safe. Regular training as a team builds camaraderie and the result is a high standard of safe teamwork to execute operations successfully."

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