In the third of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 4 (Mykonos) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.
Langebaan on the West Coast is a well-known watersports destination, catering to kite- and wind-surfing, paddling, sailing, fishing and swimming enthusiasts almost all-year round. There are also a number of commercial and subsistence fishing concerns operating in the West Coast area, as well as several yacht clubs and harbours, including Saldanha’s large commercial harbour and two smaller ports in the well-known fishing town of St Helena Bay.
It’s no wonder then that Station 4 (Mykonos) is Sea Rescue’s busiest station, recording 70 callouts in 2020. The station’s operational area extends from Elandsbaai in the north to Vondeling in the south. The station, established in 1970, operated from containers at the Saldanha Bay Yacht Club for many years before the current base was built at Club Mykonos’s marina in 2004.
Interesting and varied callouts
‘It’s a big operational area,’ says station commander Mike Shaw, ‘and the callouts are quite varied’. The station’s crew take to often inhospitable waters to assist with boats getting lost in the notorious West Coast fog, trawlers running aground, yachts taking on water, individuals in distress and animal rescues. ‘We have 32 crew, including trainees, ranging in age from 16 to around 70,’ Mike explains. ‘We gather every Thursday evening for crew meetings and training, and then usually we’ll have dedicated training on a Saturday or Sunday three times a month.’
Mike joined Sea Rescue as shore crew in 2014, after selling the family business in Paarl and moving to Langebaan. ‘I couldn’t sit around and do nothing,’ he smiles. It’s a decision he doesn’t regret one bit. Even though Mike grew up sailing and water-skiing, he had a break from water-related activities for a long time. Joining Sea Rescue reinvigorated his love of boats and the ocean, and he became qualified as a shore controller within a year. He joined the committee and was elected station commander, along with deputy Nic Stevens, in 2019.
Mike acknowledges that he has learnt a vast amount during his time at Sea Rescue, including how to adapt management styles to suit the needs of the crew in the interests of transparency. ‘In the end we did away with our committee, and our monthly portfolio holders’ meetings are open to all the crew,’ he explains. ‘We want everyone to feel included.’
Plans for the future include extending the base building to accommodate the Rodman that will join the base’s fleet in the next year or so, making Station 4 a Class 1 station. With Saldanha Harbour being earmarked as a container harbour, shipping activity is set to increase in the area, and with that the possibility of more callouts, particularly medevacs.
Between them the crew’s skill set includes whale disentanglement, maritime extraction and high-angle rescue work, but Mike admits the need for more qualified crew and more shore controllers. But, having the addition of Sea Rescue’s Lifeguard Unit at hotspots in the area during the summer months has certainly alleviated the surf rescue callouts, as has the deployment of Pink Rescue Buoys.
Both Mike and Class 2 coxswain Cedric Brown recall the rather nerve-wracking 2020 callout involving the 47.6m fishing vessel Harvest Krotoa that was threatening to run aground at Plankies Bay, north of Vondeling Island, Langebaan, with 32 crew onboard. Mykonos crew launched and, arriving on scene, found Harvest Krotoa hard aground and listing to port side. Plans were made to start evacuating crew, but during the course of the rescue, the skipper realised the vessel was floating again, and using masterful seamanship was able to steer the vessel off the rocks using reverse thrust. A towline was set up between Spirit of Surfski V and the Harvest Krotoa, and she was successfully towed into deeper water, from where the tugboat Merlot took up the tow.
Cedric, 32, joined the station in 2009. He believes rescue work of this nature is definitely a calling, but it obviously helps that he absolutely loves being on the water. (As a youngster he and his dad would often go fishing, and they still do so today.) Cedric works as a structural engineer in Hopefield and Vredenburg and is always upfront about his Sea Rescue work. ‘I tell people, “This is what I do; it’s my passion. Is it going to be a problem?” Most of the time it isn’t because the callouts are often on weekends or after hours,’ he says.
He also has no illusions about rescue work being romantic. ‘It’s hard work (and this includes training). Even if we get back to base at 2am, we still have to wash and refuel the boats. And not everyone says thank you, so you can’t be in this for praise,’ he adds.
Cedric enjoys how the management style has evolved at Sea Rescue. ‘We’re quite a tight-knit family,’ he says. ‘The running of the base is very inclusive, flexible and more relaxed. It’s something head office encourages and it’s really been welcomed by the crew.’ Cedric is currently working on the plans of the base extension, a tricky project as the position of the slipway allows for building in only one direction. It’s an exciting and necessary project, as the station looks forward to the larger rescue vessel (and eventually an ORC) joining its fleet.
Intense first rescue
Crew member Carla Visser, 34, was a rookie when it came to handling a boat when she joined the station in 2012. Bar a break of two years when she was teaching overseas, Carla has been steadily steering her way around rescue work, taking the time to learn as much as possible as thoroughly as possible. ‘I’m quite adventurous and love trying out new things and challenging myself,’ she says of the decision to join the base. She qualified as crew in 2015, and admits that she likes to takes things slowly, making sure she knows exactly what she is doing before she takes the next step. Carla recently took part in the Class 3 coxswain development course organised by head office, as well as high-angle training work which saw the crew getting used to the equipment and techniques used for scaling up and down the side of vessels during medevacs and other similar scenarios. ‘We had some nice angle points on the roof of the base, and practised up and down the side of the building,’ she says. ‘Crew are often asked to lead training, which really sharpens your knowledge and skill levels. And the development course revealed what it takes to become a coxswain. I realised I have a lot to learn, but I’m a careful person, and need to know my skills are really up there before I progress. Also, some things can’t be learnt in books; a skilled coxswain develops over time.’
Carla’s most memorable rescue was her first one. ‘We got a call from Port Control about a yacht taking on water at the lagoon mouth. We responded as fast as possible, taking along bilge pumps. It wasn’t recorded as a Mayday, but when we got there, only about a metre and a half of the yacht was still visible. The crew were all in the life raft but it was still attached to the sinking yacht. We had to put someone in the water quickly to cut the rope. We got there in the nick of time!’ The Harvest Krotoa comes in at a close second, Carla says. ‘That rescue was intense!’
Dreams of being a firefighter
For deputy station commander Nic Stevens, the Harvest Krotoa rescue also stands out as one of the ‘big’ ones. Nic and his family used to visit Langebaan during the school holidays, and after leaving school he moved there permanently to work in the family’s boating business. ‘I could sail before I could walk,’ he smiles. It seemed like a natural fit that someone so adept on the water takes up rescue work. ‘I dreamt of becoming a firefighter when I was a kid. It seemed so cool and I wanted to help people,’ he says. ‘Once I found out there was a Sea Rescue base here, I joined straight away. I did my Class 4, then 3, then 2 coxswain courses.
‘We get a lot of interesting callouts at the station – from kayakers to trawlers to boats capsizing or getting lost in the fog. I’ve been involved in a few long searches too, several of them lasting deep into the night. But there’s a point when you have to call it a day, and resume in the morning with fresh crew.’ During the last whale season, Nic was involved in seven disentanglement operations. On one occasion he and fellow crew worked for 14 hours over two days to assist a whale.
Nic, who is also the training officer at the base, is looking forward to the base expansion that will take place to accommodate the Rodman (and later the ORC). ‘We’ve had amazing support from head office,’ he says. ‘If we need anything, we just have to call. Sea Rescue really is an amazing organisation to work for,’ he says.
Station 4 (Mykonos) is currently raising funds for its base expansion. Please email Mike Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re able to assist or would like to find out about joining the station.
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