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In the second of our family stories, we chatted to dad Chris and brothers Marc and Grant van Staden, who between them have 69 years of experience at Station 12 (Knysna).

Chris van Staden, 67, former deputy station commander and former training officer begins the story…

I joined Sea Rescue in 1989. Before moving to Knysna from the then Transvaal, we always holidayed in this area and I’d often sit on the beach watching the crews go on callouts and thought I would love to do that. I’d spent much of my youth on boats (albeit on inland waters). After relocating, I was involved in a joint community fundraiser called ‘Mellodrama’. Sea Rescue crew also took part and I was immediately invited to join by the then Statcom Mike Elliot. I never looked back! The sense of achievement in saving lives and growing to be part of this ‘family’ has only increased with each year of service.

My sons, Marc and Grant, used to spend many weekends and spare time with me in and around the base when they were young, so Sea Rescue was always pretty much in their blood. It was almost a natural progression for them to join once they had finished studying and returned to Knysna. I’ve had many proud moments as a father, but seeing them qualify as crew was one of the most memorable ones. I pretty much knew they would easily slip into roles of responsibility when they were required to do so.

I’ve never had the honour of being on a rescue boat with either of my sons as this is not permitted. We all accepted this fact without question as the rule is there for obvious reasons. It is nevertheless very difficult for any of us to be in the base while the others are on a callout in dangerous conditions.

The boys and I have a lot in common as fellow crewmen but our family bond goes much deeper than this. We are all involved in the building industry. Marc and I in our business and Grant with his. We’re all passionate about our families: me about my sons and my grandkids and the boys about their young families. We’re also accomplished hockey players with provincial colours. I am one of the few fathers to have had the pleasure of playing in the same team with his sons at the SA Masters Provincial tournament. And then there’s the obvious bond: we are each passionate about Sea Rescue, what we do there and why we do it.

Deputy station commander, Grant van Staden, 41

I joined the station in January 2001. My dad had been a volunteer at the base for a number of years already and as kids we spent a lot of time with him there. From the age of about 16, when I was home from boarding school, I used to go to the weekly training with my Dad and every now and then had the opportunity to join in. When I moved back to Knysna after studying, joining the base on a permanent basis was one of my priorities. I knew all the crew and loved what the NSRI was about. My dad played a huge role in me joining the NSRI.

I was elected as the deputy in 2019 and, naturally, my main function is to provide as much support as possible to our station commander, Jerome Simonis. We communicate a lot and help each other make the right decisions when it matters most.

My brother joined a couple of years after me, and I think the fact that my dad and I were already volunteers probably influenced his decision, but there is a strong chance he would have ended up joining anyway, as we spent a lot of time on boats on the lagoon when we were growing up.

Serving our station with a combined service of 69 years is something special and, as we’re all coxswains, we are quite often in charge of our vessels at the same time. Good communication and understanding of each other makes for a very strong working relationship and it’s has been an honour to serve with two of the closest people in my life – it has played a big part in bringing the three of us even closer.

My dad has always been concerned for both of us due to the conditions we sometimes find ourselves in and will not rest until he knows we are safe. We have shared in many successful and fulfilling rescues together and no one can explain the feeling of returning a loved one to their family, and we’re lucky enough to get to share this feeling, as a family.

Training officer, Marc van Staden

I started volunteering in February 2004. I was 21 years old and joined with five other new trainees. With my dad having served at the station while we were growing up, my brother Grant and I naturally had an interest in Sea Rescue and would often spend weekends at the base when they had work parties for maintenance or weekend training. We’re also a keen boating family and share an interest in the ocean. Once Grant and I returned to Knysna after boarding school, Grant joined straight away. I felt I didn’t want to impose on his space, but I also didn’t want to force the fact that we would now have three family members at the station. But I guess I was just delaying the inevitable and when the opportunity came two years later for me to join, I jumped at it.

Looking back, I think it’s easy to say that the motivation to join was to save lives and give back to the community. But as a 21-year-old, the attraction of spending time on these amazing boats and learning all these new skills was probably the bigger attraction. But after joining, the reality of how serious our jobs are set in quite quickly.

I have been fortunate enough to have had two stints as a training officer at our base. The first was from 2014 to 2016 and the second one started in 2019 and will run until June next year when station elections are held. As training officers, we are responsible for planning scenario-based training exercises every week (we train every Wednesday evening). We also plan our maintenance evenings that take place on the first Wednesday of every month. We make sure that every crew person has an assigned role and a part to play in each week’s exercises, and we rotate them as much as possible so that each person gets training in the various aspects of crewing. This includes the eLearning platform as well.

Then there’s also the trainee crew and getting them through all the various courses, task books, first aid and training techniques that we use. It is a huge responsibility, and a great honour, as you have a lot of influence over how the base is prepared, run and what type of crew vibe there is. It’s a very rewarding portfolio, especially when you see crew progressing up the ranks and how proud and happy they are. That for me is amazing.

We’re not allowed to be on the same boat, but luckily the station has three boats! Over the years, I’ve often heard fellow crew talk about my dad, saying he was ‘so awesome on the helm in the conditions in the Heads’, or in a debrief, you hear how much he taught them in the exercise, and so on. My dad and brother were coxswains before me, so I would watch from afar and see how they would operate and be super proud and would aspire to be like that. But I never got to learn from them first hand like many others did. But in saying that. I got to learn from quite a few other coxswains who were absolutely brilliant and helped get me to where I am today.

So maybe, in a way, the three of us are pretty similar. Grant and I have inherited what my dad has as a person and coxswain, and then added to that the learning from some of the best coxswains I have come across has stood us in good stead, I would like to think. So without actually making a point of challenging each other, I think we challenge each other just by trying to do the best we can and, even more so, try pass what we know and have learnt down to each other and others in the station. One thing I definitely did have to learn was how to remain calm and think with a clear head in pressure situations. I didn’t always have that ability and watching my dad and brother in certain situations over the years made a big difference.

Being a Sea Rescue volunteer for such a long period of time has been special and rewarding, and we do call each other family, but to be able to do it alongside your dad and brother makes it even more special. To spend every Wednesday evening together training and out at sea is just so awesome and we are extremely fortunate to be able to do so. And with that come some highs and some lows, of course. Once we had a callout where my dad and brother launched and I was on shore duty. I stood and watched them for about 30 mins trying to exit the Knysna Heads.

I had never seen any boats even try and go into the Heads in conditions like that before and to watch them hitting wave after wave, approximately 6m high, completely risking their own lives was pretty stressful for all of us. But that’s what we train for, I guess, and thankfully due to all our training, our crew on that day handled conditions as best they could but, even so, couldn’t exit the heads.

And then we have the opposite side of the coin which, thankfully, far outweighs the lows and that’s the great experiences and rescues we have got to share over the years. I think whether you are on the boat as crew or coxswain or back at base as shore controller or whatever your role may be in a callout, it’s always special to share those moments and share in the feeling of saving a life, or assisting a yacht or fisherman, or even animals sometimes.

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