In the fifth of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 6 (Gqeberha) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.
Station 6 (Gqeberha), located in the city’s harbour, is by all accounts a busy station, responding to around 70 callouts a year. Its 46 crew members meet every month and train once a week, lockdown levels permitting.
“We have four crews,” station commander Justin Erasmus explains. “This works well as each crew will be on call for a week, and then on standby for three weeks.” Justin, who joined Station 6 in 2000, and was elected station commander in 2019, describes the crew as a “keen bunch” who are always willing to get stuck into any project. While social get-togethers have been tricky due to Covid-19 restrictions, the group remains tight-knit.
“They’re the family you never knew you had, and that you never want to be without,” he says. “They are an amazing group of volunteers who know how to pull together when they need to.”
Volunteers ‘make it happen’
Former station commander Ian Gray has seen his fair share of rescues in his nearly 40 years with the NSRI. He recalls the crew’s tireless efforts during the floods of 2006. “It was a Wednesday evening, around 10pm,” he says. “I was on my way home after a station management committee meeting when I received a call from the Fire Department about a woman who had been swept off a bridge in her car. For the next 24 hours, the guys operated with barely any sleep or sustenance, kicking down doors and pulling unaware folk from their beds, dodging snakes and live power cables in various horrible and dangerous conditions.
“Multiple small teams operated all over the Metro dealing with calls for missing people, trapped motorists, medical emergencies and animals in distress. This was in the days before swift-water training but, as so often happens at NSRI, the volunteers just made it happen, resulting in the assistance or rescue of more than 120 people and an interesting menagerie of animals.”
Ian joined the NSRI in 1982. A school friend introduced him, saying “it will be fun”. He stayed because he got a real kick out of going out to sea and bringing people home, and the station became his extended family. “During my nearly four decades with the station, I have been privileged to meet a wonderful diversity of people from all walks of life and backgrounds, including some really interesting and quirky people that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to encounter if not for NSRI. Over the years the faces may have changed but the passion, altruism and great characters have stayed the same.”
Ian has fulfilled many roles during his tenure, including deputy station commander, station commander (for 21 years), coxswain and, in his own words, dish washer. He is currently involved in managing operations for Region 4, which includes stations at Oyster Bay, St Francis Bay, Jeffreys Bay, Port Elizabeth and Port Alfred.
Mike Vermeulen joined the station in 2017 when he was in Grade 11. A year later he received his crew badge. Mike follows in the footsteps of his dad, who was a crew member when Mike was a child. “I've always dreamed of becoming a crew member too. I see it as such an honour to be able to work and go on callouts with the people I looked up to as a child.”
About his fellow volunteers, Mike says, “We’re a family. We tease each other and give each other a hard time, but we also work really well together, no matter the situation. It’s also a great comfort knowing I have a lot of people here that I could call at any hour and I know they’ll have my back.”
One of the rescues that sticks out for Mike involved a fisherman who had fallen off a jetty between two fishing boats. “His colleagues managed to pull him out of the water,” Mike says, “but then they thought there was nothing more they could do for him and just left him lying on the jetty. When we arrived, one of the now ex-crew members, who is an ER doctor by profession, started administering CPR while giving instructions to the surrounding crew and paramedics. He managed to resuscitate the man who then made a full recovery.”
When serving is in your blood
Sheryll Grobler joined Station 6 in 2007. It seemed an inevitable move when one considers Sheryll has been volunteering since high school. “I’m not sure if it’s genetic or something my mom instilled in me,” she says. “I volunteered at the Oceanarium in high school. After I started working and couldn’t volunteer at the Oceanarium anymore, I joined some mates who had decided to become police reservists. I did that until I joined the SAPS. I was moved to the crime-prevention unit early in my career and met Inspector Marius du Plessis. He was a volunteer at Station 6. I then moved over to the forensic unit and had time on my hands to serve, and that’s when I joined the NSRI,” Sheryll adds.
Sheryll, who currently works in the health and safety field, recalls her most memorable rescue. “It was late afternoon on 31 July 2014 when we got a call of an entangled whale off Maitlands. It’s quite a trek to get there by sea. Being winter the light was fading. We would need all the light left if we were going to find the entangled animal and free her. We were meant to wait for a second boat, but the clock was ticking. So a call was made by the senior folk onboard, and we flat-tapped it out there. The sun was almost under the horizon when we arrived at the spot where the animal had last been seen. Thankfully we found her quite quickly and got to work.
“The ropes had her caught in a ‘C’ shape with the rope wrapped around her peduncle at least five times. It was also wrapped around her one flipper and then up over her head. There in the fading light we got her free. It’s like she sensed it and breathed in and went under our RIB. Gosh, she was longer than the boat! She then popped up on our port bow, head out the water, and looked at us on the boat. You would swear she was acknowledging each one of us. You want to see five grown-ups get emotional. She blew, then sunk into the now darkening waters, circled us and then swam off into the deep. That was pretty ‘wow’.”
A casualty becomes a crew member
Crewman Mark Dawson is right at home on the water. He sails in provincial regattas, ocean races and has a side business importing and selling racing yachts. He joined Station 6 in March 2019, and admits at the time, he thought he would have his crew badge within a year. But Covid-19 meant a shift in his plans, like training, sea time and other crew gatherings were suspended during the various stages of lockdown. Interestingly, Mark had wanted to join ever since he arrived in SA from the UK in 2010 but was worried about the amount of time he could devote to the organisation. “In the end, it was getting pulled out of the water myself during a provincial regatta that made me physically go down to the station and get involved.”
Despite the delay in getting his crew badge, Mark has enjoyed the last two years, highlighting the fundraising and awareness drive in 2020’s Little Optimist Challenge. Three crew sailed the 12nm route to raise funds for the Little Optimist Trust as well as create awareness for the satellite station being built at Noordhoek Ski Boat Club. Launching from this location significantly reduces response times for callouts in the area.
To others wishing to join the NSRI, he says, “Just join. For young people, the sea time with your crew is fun and exhilarating, but also builds character and life lessons you don’t find anywhere else. Sea Rescue is like a family, and not only with the station you join. You will soon learn that as part of that family, any sea rescue volunteer will do anything they can to assist you wherever you are or whatever you need. Just get involved and be proactive, the rewards are in what we do.”
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