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David Nurick and the West Coast coastwatchers are ready to take on the festive season.

The coastwatchers are volunteers who are located in opportune spots along the coast, which allows them to provide information on emergency incidents.

“We discussed starting the West Coast coastwatchers programme around 2019, however, we were not really operational, or in much contact during the lockdowns, and have only started up properly again quite recently,” explains David Nurick, who heads up the programme. “The idea was suggested by Peter O'Hanlon, the station commander for Station 18 (Melkbos). He saw the success of the Fish Hoek coastwatchers and wanted to replicate their great service.”

David explains that two things are key to the success of the programme: knowing when to help, and knowing when help is not needed.

“When a call is received, the coastwatchers are alerted and often have quick access to the area in which it is being reported. By being able to get there quickly, accurate information can be sent through to the rescue team, taking a lot of the search out of ‘search and rescue’,” he explains. “The flip side of this is to know when emergency services are not required. Putting out a call every time a kite-surfer collapses his kite and takes five minutes to relaunch would exhaust the resources of any rescue group.”

There are about 40 participants in the West Coast coastwatchers group, which covers an area from Milnerton through to Melkbos.

“There are a few groups of people, such as the Star Alarms camera control crew, a few of the kitesurfing schools, the life-saving clubs and some restaurants, that have been a tremendous help to the programme,” David says.

David believes that a successful coastwatchers programme is a “trustworthy network that is available to assist when required”.

“They need to be trustworthy, meaning that in an emergency, they are able to relay accurate information to the base. And by having a network, the idea is to get eyes on the emergency as quickly as possible, and this is made possible by a network of people, cameras, vehicles and other assets. We also need people in the right place, at the right time. This is often just luck, but we try to cover as much ground as possible, especially in the known problem areas.”

When asked about his most memorable rescue involving the coastwatchers, David recalls that early in the programme, he was called to a drowning in progress. By the time that he got there, Station 18 was there, Big Bay Lifesaving had arrived, and so had an ER helicopter.

“It was all initiated by our Emergency Operations Centre. When I checked the messages, I saw that some of the input was being supplied by two of the coastwatchers ̶ one in a building high-up, and the other down on the beach. It was great to know that we could be involved in the bigger picture.”

Meet one of the team

Watching an emergency unfold with no way of providing any assistance led Salome Kraamwinkel to join the coastwatchers about two years ago.

“I live in an apartment building right on the beach, and I’d seen helicopters and a lot of activity down below,” she says. “Having grown up on a farm where you rely very much on your neighbours for safety and security, I was curious and wondered what was going on. I struggled to find any information but it looked very much like an active rescue.

“I got hold of the NSRI and they said that something had happened but they were not allowed to give me more information. What I found out later was that some teenagers had been swept off the rocks and two had actually drowned. That was heartbreaking because I had this perfect vantage point but was unable to help. David somehow got hold of my number through all of my enquiries about the incident and he recruited me.”

When a possible situation arises, a text is sent to the coastwatchers’ WhatsApp group explaining what is happening and an approximate location.

“Basically I will then report on what I see using scopes and binoculars. This helps guide the decision on whether or not they should launch the boat, and also helps the boat find the person in distress,” Salome says.

“It’s nice to be able to do something useful. I very much believe in a sense of community, and that we all need to pitch in and keep each other safe when we can. It’s lovely to be part of a team that helps people enjoy the ocean and play sports outside, while making it a little bit safer. And if you’re not available, you’re not available. There are no expectations placed on you.”

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