In the sixth of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 7 (East London) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.
There’s a lovely bit of history behind how Station 7 (East London) got its name: The George Walker Base. Captain George Walker served as East London’s harbour master from 1851 to 1876. For 25 years, he managed what was little more than a river port, but an increasingly busy one at that. Aside from working alongside the rough-and-ready boatsmen moving cargo from the surf via cables or ‘warps’ anchored to a buoy out in the roadstead, Walker and his crew attended 38 shipwrecks and saved 300 lives. They would venture out on these ‘callouts’ on an old whaler.
During one particularly perilous shipwreck, Walker spent the better part of a day in the breakers assisting the crew from the stricken vessel Medusa, nearly losing his own life by suffocating in the foam. His crew, who nicknamed him ‘Old Blueskin’ due to his constant exposure to the cold elements, eventually stepped in to save him. When Walker eventually retired, he was a spent man, exhausted from decades of physical exertion.
Just shy of a century after Old Blueskin’s retirement, on 2 August 1974, Station 7 (East London) was opened on the banks of the Buffalo River, and the base building named in honour of a man who would have sacrificed life and limb for those in distress.
The spirit of service
This spirit of service is evident at the base. Station commander Cathrine Prentis has been an NSRI volunteer for 14 years, and was elected to lead the crew a year ago. She has a Law degree, but decided that, for now, she could best serve the community by becoming a professional lifeguard. There are 17 crew stationed at the base, ranging in age from 21 to around 60, but the numbers look set to grow.
“We’re excited about the future as we had an excellent response to our drive for new volunteers,” Cathrine says.
Crew and management meetings are held once a month, and training is conducted twice a month (Friday evenings and Sundays), with an extra slot for theory training on Wednesdays when required.
“The crew are a great group of people who are enthusiastic, motivated and driven to serve the NSRI and the wider community. The gees is good here too,” she adds. “Our crew are continuously striving to be innovative and to improve, so that we may make an even greater contribution to saving lives, changing lives and creating futures.”
Former station commander Geoff McGregor agrees that the spirit at the station is special. “We can certainly tell some funny stories around a fire!” he says. Geoff joined the base straight after completing his military service in 1984. “I wanted to serve my community; that was important to me,” he adds.
Geoff, a Class 3 and Class 1 coxswain, served as station commander for 17 years, and is currently in charge of operations and maintenance at the base. He feels privileged that he has been able to be a part of a very special voluntary organisation like the NSRI for so long.
“I have been fortunate enough to watch Station 7 grow from a young base, which in its early stages was barely big enough to house an 8m rescue vessel. And we used a 1969 Land Rover as our rescue vehicle,” he recalls. “Now, the station is big enough to house three rescue vessels and our vehicle, and our equipment is modern and up to date… We’ve certainly come a long way!”
Importantly, the station’s assets also include its volunteers whose rescue capabilities include high-angle rescue and whale disentanglement. Add to that rescue swimmers, training officers, lifeguards and very strong leaders, Geoff says.
For Geoff the most memorable rescue of his career involved the cruise ship Oceanos. Earlier this year, on the 30th anniversary of the vessel’s sinking, the NSRI commemorated the civilians and rescue personnel whose combined efforts resulted in no lives being lost.
Geoff led a crew of 17 volunteers who were divided into groups that were deployed either to assist crew on the harbour tug Jannie Oelofse with first aid for casualties, to man the base, or to travel to The Haven coastal resort where an emergency operations centre was set up to assist the SAAF helicopter fleet and airborne rescue.
Station 7’s rescue vessel was manned and operated, forming the air/ship communication link vital to the rescue operation. On 4 August all 571 souls who were onboard were accounted for after one of the biggest civilian maritime rescue operations in history.
In her time at the station, Cathrine sites a whale rescue as one of her most special. “Being able to save such a majestic creature was one of the most rewarding experiences,” she says. “From seeing the whale calf entangled in fishing buoys and line and in extreme distress, to taking the time to gain its trust so that, eventually, it stopped diving and just lay on the surface so that we could free it. And then, once freed, watching it swim past our rescue vessel, ‘eyeball’ us, give a spray from its blowhole and swim off to deeper waters, where two larger whales were circling, no doubt waiting anxiously for its return.”
A trainee’s point of view
There haven’t been any memorable rescues yet for trainee Joshua Daubermann (25), but he’s looking forward to becoming an operational crew member soon. “NSRI has been a part of my life ever since I was a young child,” he says. “My father was a crew member, so when the time came and I was old enough to volunteer, I decided I would, so I could help anybody in need.”
Joshua hopes to become a coxswain and learn to helm the station’s Class 1 vessel, something he knows he can achieve with the support of his fellow crew. “Everybody on base has a little bit to share and teach, which as a trainee I appreciate, especially with all the decades of experience Station 7 has accumulated.”
Joshua acknowledges volunteering can be demanding but with the right balance, it can be incredibly rewarding he says. For anyone out there wanting to join he has the following advice: “Get in contact with your local station and just speak with the crew; they will guide you in the right direction. Don't be afraid of trying something new. NSRI is a big family that is always there for you and willing to help. You will get great enjoyment out of volunteering.”
In three years’ time Station 7 will celebrate 50 years of service. In the base building, a plaque documenting the number of operations, people assisted and lives saved keeps the spirit of rescue alive. Volunteers will simply say, ‘this is what we do’, but each life saved is a family made whole and community restored. Old Blueskin would have been proud!
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