In addition to the front-of-house members at each station, another pivotal component of the NSRI team is the coastwatchers.
Stationed at locations where the coastline allows for surveillance from people’s homes, these important volunteers are often the first to spot incidents and act as the “eyes-on-call” to assist on, or even initiate a rescue operation.
“Andy Connell headed up the coastwatchers at Station 9 in Gordon’s Bay,” Darren Zimmerman, Station Commander for Simon’s Town (Station 10), recalls. “Over the years Station 9 has always had a relatively successful coastwatchers programme. Andy wrote the original coastwatchers operating procedures for the programme. So we adopted that process from our neighbour stations and then we built on it. The coastwatchers are all on our station emergency callout system so when we activate for a rescue they are all immediately on high alert and get into their visual positions.”
According to Darren, the success of the coastwatchers programme relies heavily on the person chosen to manage the team at each station.
“Coastwatchers have always been seen as an auxiliary function of each station, and for that reason you need to take one of your operational members and get them to run with the programme, and to keep the coastwatchers as informed and active as possible,” he says.
For Darren and the team at Station 10, that operational member is Michael Geddes, who is a shore crew member and control room operator. As a retired SAA pilot he brought a vast amount of experience and knowledge with him.
“Mike has a very nice, calm nature about him. If you take his people skills and mix that with his knowledge of search and rescue, and get him to head up your programme, you’re bound to be successful. Mike customised the training manual for what Simon’s Town needed,” Darren says.
Before Mike starts his training with people wanting to join the coastwatchers, he goes to their homes to get an idea of what they can see from where they are located.
“Prior to this I get a GPS position of their home, so that I can get a bearing and a distance from their home to various places,” Mike says. “I need this information to set up the pelorus, which is a relative bearing indicator with respect to true north.”
Mike also sets up two charts for his new charges, namely a field of vision chart and a plotting chart. The field of vision chart is used to determine overlapping fields of vision.
“If, for example, we call out the coastwatchers to give a bearing or a comment on something happening in the bay, and the incident can be seen by one person but not by another, we can use the information to eliminate some areas and focus on the correct area of interest,” Mike explains.
“The Plotting Chart incorporates a map of the peninsula for our area and is used to plot true bearings and obtain a fixed position if the base team is given more than one bearing. Even a single bearing is useful as we can send the boat close to the shore line and start a search along the bearing line. The drift of a casualty can also be obtained by a coast watcher taking bearings at various time intervals.”
Training usually starts with covering a very basic knowledge of how to use the chart, the difference between magnetic and true north, the practical use of a pelorus and how to send a bearing via WhatsApp.
Mike also gives the new members a welcome pack containing everything they need to know about their new role. He also sets up a little “test” for them after he has visited them.
“I do a practical exercise with them on a Sunday where I will request the coxswain to position a boat in a specific area for the coastwatchers to take bearings of,” he says. “I will then do all the plots and email the results to everyone. I usually include all the coxswains and controllers in the debrief as this promotes confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the coastwatchers. In the event of an actual rescue involving coastwatchers, I usually write up a brief report on the rescue and send it to all the coastwatchers so that they can actually see how their input affected the rescue.”
When asked about his most memorable rescue involving the coastwatchers, Mike recalls that the very first rescue they reported on was, in a word, ‘fantastic’.
“Two weeks after the network was set up, I got a call from one of our coastwatchers who said he could see someone on a surf ski having difficulty and firing pencil flares. So he took a bearing and passed it onto the control room. I wasn’t on duty that day but of course I had my radio on me, and I started listening in. He was passing on bearings and commentary and basically directing the boat directly to them. I was driving along the road to where the casualty was and I could see the casualty and could hear the commentary on the radio and I thought, ‘Man this thing is working!’ That was a very satisfying feeling,” he recalls with a smile.
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