When out on a rescue, a coxswain needs to be able to lead their crew seamlessly and without hesitation.
With this in mind, the NSRI has developed a rigorous training programme for coxswains. The programme is segmented into five classes, starting with vessels operated on inland waters (Class 5). Aspiring coxswains can work their way up to becoming a Class 1 or 2, which means that they can operate a vessel that is more than 9 metres long, but under 25 tonnes.
“To be a qualified coxswain you need to be mature and level-headed,” says Graeme Harding, Training Manager for the NSRI. “You’ll be the one going onto the water when everyone else is heading off of it.”
To progress to the level of a Class 1 coxswain, individuals need to have logged a minimum of 150 hours as crew, 20 hours in rescue operations, 30 night hours, and 100 hours as a trainee Class 1 coxswain.
They are required to have attended the Class 1 coxswain development course and passed the assessment course, which includes written theory exams, several scenario practicals at sea, and a grueling oral exam.
“Drill training is very important for us. We always quote the old saying: ‘It's not about rising to the occasion. It’s about lowering to the highest level of your training’,” Graeme says.
We spoke to 3 qualified coxswains about their experiences.
Dean Wegerle - Class 3 coxswain, Station 3 (Table Bay)
Dean’s journey with the NSRI started completely outside of the norm. He grew up in a small mining town in Witbank, where he was part of the local yacht club.
“One day there was a massive accident where 7 people lost their lives because there were no rescue services to assist them,” Dean recalls. “I sent out emails to several organisations, including one to the ‘info@’ address at the NSRI, asking how I could start a rescue base. In 2014 we managed to found the NSRI Station 35 at Witbank Dam, and the rest is history!”
He moved to the Table Bay base about two-and-a half years ago, and recently qualified as a Class 3 coxswain.
“The assessment was quite an experience! You arrive on Thursday and you get thrown into about 12 hours’ worth of exams. Within the NSRI we are held to such a high standard that you need 90% or above to pass your exams. It’s quite a challenge,” Dean says. “How Graeme always explains it is that when you become a coxswain you become the teacher. And if you only know 70% of the work, that’s all you can teach others.”
The candidates write exams until about midnight, which include everything from navigation to collision regulations. The next day is mostly lectures encompassing the theoretical side of being a coxswain. Topics covered include dealing with stress as well as the psychological factors involved in the job.
“The biggest thing is to teach someone to go from being a follower to being a leader. When you’re out on a call in bad weather or on a search, you look to your coxswain for leadership and guidance. Now suddenly you are that person,” Dean explains.
According to Dean, after this, the fun begins.
“We got onto the boats and did close quarters maneuvering. We always say that anyone can drive a boat fast and in a straight line, but not everyone can do it slowly and in close quarters,” says Dean.
After finishing with this at about midnight, the team is up again at 5am, where they participate in capsize drills, and boat handling and towing exercises. They then head off on a navigation exercise where they aren’t allowed to use any of their instruments.
“That evening we navigated from Granger Bay to Hout Bay, using just a good old compass and a course we had plotted during the day. After that we came into a scenario, where we get a mock call about a person in difficulty. So how early you get to bed depends how quickly you find the person,” he says with a laugh.
The next day the team is up at 5am again for a debriefing session, where they find out whether they have passed their assessment.
When asked what his advice to aspiring coxswains is, Dean’s message is simple: “Just do it! And let your leadership know that you’d like to become a coxswain. Otherwise you won’t get the mentoring from your leadership that you need.”
Christabel Barbas, Class 4 coxswain, Station 36 (Oyster Bay)
At 18 years of age, Christabel is the youngest person in the NSRI’s history to become a coxswain.
“I started at the NSRI three years ago, and it was always my dream to be the youngest person to qualify as a coxswain,” Christabel says. “After three years of hard work and training our station commander told me the opportunity was coming up for an assessment course, and I immediately took it. It was very hectic because I was busy with my matric prelim exams over the period the assessment was to take place. The pressure actually ended up helping me a lot. I think I operate better under pressure.”
“We started the assessment by doing pre-launch checks and identifying safe launching sites, followed by going out to sea where they tested our knowledge of launching as well as our skills on the JetRIB, including casualty recoveries in the surfline,” she recalls. “After that we did our recovery operation and then washed our boats. Then we went and wrote our exams where we did some hectic chartwork. It was stressful but it’s also fun. You learn a lot at the assessment itself, as you learn from other people’s mistakes. We only got home late that night.”
For Christabel, being part of the NSRI is a family affair. After she joined the organisation, her entire family jumped onboard – her father recently qualified as a coxswain, her mom is part of the Rescue Crew and her sister and brother are part of the NSRI’s junior crew. So while she’s planning on aupairing overseas next year, her ultimate goal is return to South Africa and to her family, and to continue her journey with Sea Rescue.
“Christabel has a really great feeling for the sea. It is amazing to see how comfortable she is operating in the surf zone – she is a natural. It must also be noted that Christabel has honed her surf skills in some of the biggest surf we get around the country as Oyster Bay can get really tricky at times,” says Harding.
Christabel’s advice to aspiring coxswains, or those thinking of joining the NSRI, echo Dean’s: In short, just do it!
“Being part of the NSRI has taught me a lot about teamwork and how to work with different people. You don’t know them, but you have to learn to trust them with your life,” she says. “If you really like adventures, this is something you should try out. I had never been on a boat or out at sea before I joined the NSRI. Just get out of your comfort zone and do it!”
Carmen Long, Class 1 coxswain, Station 8 (Hout Bay)
Carmen has been with the NSRI for 10 years, and in 2018 she became the first woman to qualify as a Class 1 coxswain.
“Becoming a Class 1 coxswain hadn’t even crossed my mind. The station commander at the time said to me, ‘Don’t you want to be a Class 1’? I asked him if he thought I could do it, and he said, ‘Of course you can,’” Carmen recalls.
Many people may think that a coxswain needs to have a big personality, however Carmen believes that this is not the case. Being assertive is obviously a crucial skill to have, but being a team player is even more important.
“I don’t believe a coxswain needs to be someone who comes in with guns blazing – that’s nonsense!” Carmen says. “I wouldn’t like to work with a coxswain like that. It doesn’t matter if you are a quiet person. You need to be able to keep your cool when things are crazy. You also need to be a team player. A good coxswain must consult with their team, and then make decisions based on what is in their best interests. You may make mistakes when you’re the boss and if your team points them out, note it and carry on. And you need to have a good sense of humour.”
According to Carmen, the biggest challenges a coxswain faces are not out at sea. It’s one thing to go on operations, as everyone is in working mode. Outside of those situations, every crew member is a person, with a family and work and personal issues. You need to know what’s going on with them so you can support them, she explains.
Carmen’s advice to women who are thinking of becoming a coxswain sounds strangely familiar...
“They have to follow their hearts and keep trying. I know sometimes it might not be easy but there’s always a way. And pick up the phone! We love to train with our flanking stations. Even if I’m in Cape Town and they are at another station, just call me. And don’t put any labels on yourself. I was once asked what the difference is between a male and a female coxswain. There’s no difference, clever people make clever decisions. Just do it!”
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