In the eighth of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 9 (Gordon’s Bay) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.
Station 9 (Gordon’s Bay) station commander Alan Meiklejohn began volunteering for the NSRI in 2005 at Station 6 (Gqeberha), before moving to Gordon’s Bay in 2012 and joining the station there. 2022 marks his sixth year as station commander at a base where the crew are “young, vibrant, capable, eager to learn and more than willing to get wet”.
The station, which had humble beginnings in a wooden shed at the Gordon’s Bay Yacht Club, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. The station was started in 1969 by then harbour master Doug van der Riet and, in his honour, the current base (completed in 1986), was named after him.
The base boasts 41 active crew members and 19 coastwatchers who are the NSRI’s ‘eyes on the water’. Station 9 operates two crews, Port and Starboard crews, which alternate duties every two weeks. “This means we are on station every second weekend doing base maintenance and training. Our training officer then also does training on alternate weekends and some evenings during the week to get new recruits up to speed,” Alan explains.
‘It’s what we do’
Alan, who is a medic and Covid-19 compliance officer on film sets, has seen his fair share of rescues during his 16 years at the NSRI, and the one that stands out for him is probably the saddest one too. It was while volunteering at Station 6 that they received a call about a double drowning in progress.
“We responded with the rescue vehicle towing our 4.2m surf duck,” Alan recalls. “When we arrived on scene, we established that a father and his six-year-old son had been washed into the sea. The sea state was rough with huge waves and shore dumpers. The family and a huge group of bystanders were on the beach. While the crew prepped the boat to launch, I ran up a dune to try and get a sense of the wave patterns, as the conditions were not favourable for a surf launch. My then statcom said it’s my choice to launch, and just then the police helicopter spotted one of the casualties, and we launched. We got hammered by the waves but managed to recover both casualties. Unfortunately, both were declared deceased.”
Alan’s story is just one example of the willingness of volunteers to assist in often extreme conditions. It speaks to the volunteers themselves, the high level of training they undergo as well as teamwork. “It’s what we do”, they will tell you. This motto has come to mean a lot to
24-year-old seagoing crew member Carol Dalton, who has been an NSRI volunteer for five years. She recalls being asked on more than one occasion how much she makes while working for the NSRI. She believes Sea Rescue is its own reward. “It’s about being able to return someone to their family,” she adds.
Carol’s most memorable rescue, and the one where she learnt the most valuable lesson, in fact occurred as she was on her way to a rescue. “I saw a car hit a cyclist,” she says. “I needed to assist and because of my NSRI training, I was able to manage the scene. What I also realised, right then, was that the person who places the call sets the tone for the entire callout. I was not at all prepared for the accident that happened right in front of me; I managed it, but it was stressful. The difference when I go out to sea is I am as calm as anything because I know that my team has my back.”
Another important learning is that everyone has a job to do. “There is no free ride,” she says, “even if that means you’re the lookout.” Carol moved to Station 9 from Station 10 (Simon’s Town), a transition that was made easier by the friendly, welcoming crew, who were willing to show her the ropes. “Everyone here has taught me something,” she says. Of her NSRI colleagues at Station 9, she says, “They are ready to assist with anything personal or a call out. You can rely on each and every one of them to be there in a time of need. I feel very lucky to be in this family.”
Rescue skill and training kick in
For recruitment officer and crew member Brian Gosling, it’s also not just about being part of an organisation. “You become part of a family,” he says. Inspired by his love for the sea and witnessing a training day at Station 23 (Wilderness) while on holiday there, Brian joined Station 9 after moving to Gordon’s Bay.
“I decided I should join, seeing it as an opportunity to challenge and better myself doing what I love, while also giving back to the community.” When asked if he’s had a mentor during his three years of service, Brian is quick to acknowledge the entire base. “The crew of Station 9 is always more than happy to share their knowledge and there is always something new to be learnt. But if I had to single anyone, out it would be our training officer Ryan Holmes. Ryan has a lot of patience; he is calm even in tough and stressful situations when everything around you is happening at a fast pace.”
As a recruitment office, Brian will be on-hand to chat to anyone who wants to join the station, informing them of what the NSRI does, and what volunteering will entail. Once they sign up, Brian introduces them to the training officer who takes it from there.
A memorable rescue that comes to mind for Brian occurred early in 2019 after a development course that entailed a long day of training. “We were busy cleaning up when our station commander received a call of a flare sighting. We could actually see it out of the window. This was the first time since becoming crew that I experienced first-hand how the training we had kicked in like second nature. The whole crew jumped into action, getting the vessels prepared and launched. We reached the casualty vessel, which had experienced motor mechanical failure, and brought all three casualties safely to the station where their families were waiting for them.”
Being a part of something bigger than ourselves
New trainee James Sparks (24) recently discovered his love for the ocean and felt compelled to get involved in serving his community and, as he says, “The NSRI covers both aspects”. James received his crew badge a year ago and acknowledges Vincent Landman and training instructor Grant Bairstow for helping him get there. James is eager to become a coxswain, but says, “For now, I’m more than happy to be a crewman and build a solid foundation before advancing my career.” For anyone wanting to join the NSRI as a volunteer, his words resound: “You can be the difference between someone surviving or not!” He feels at home at Station 9, where his NSRI family consists of “many different personalities and characters, who all bond together, reflecting the same mindset of serving our community and being a part of something bigger than just ourselves.”
Leading and following are equally important
Being a volunteer was always part of the plan for Class 3 coxswain Vincent Landman, who received his crew badge on 1 May 2016. “I’m someone who likes living on the edge,” he admits. “I’m an adrenaline junkie, so there’s no better way for me to do what I love and give back to the community.” Vincent was involved in life saving and swimming from a young age, and NSRI volunteers’ red wetsuits – which have become synonymous with the heroes of the sea – made a lasting impression on him as a child.
While physically volunteering might not suit everyone, Vincent believes everyone can make some sort of contribution to a cause they hold dear, by donating for example. His time at NSRI has taught him that volunteering entails having an appetite for the sea and helping people and animals in need. “You need to be a team player: leading and following are equally important, and have respect and love towards people, especially your crew.”
Vincent feels fortunate to have been involved in a number of successful rescues where lives were saved. “Any rescue that has a positive outcome stands out for me. The one I remember well was during my first week as a new coxswain. I was manning the duty phone and we got a call from a RIB that was drifting somewhere in False Bay and then the skipper’s phone went off. The magnitude of the search-and-rescue operation that followed to find the vessel was quite something and involved navy submarines, crew from five stations, AMS and private fishing vessels. That particular search went on 24/7 for three days.”
Vincent singles out five qualities he believes are essential to the smooth running of a station: communication, attitude, aptitude, transparency and respect. And it seems Station 9 has these in spades. From December 2019 to December 2021, Station 9 crew responded to more than 90 callouts. It is by all accounts a busy station, achievable only through volunteers being able to work seamlessly together, excellent training and camaraderie, and where everyone has each other’s backs.
“The crew is an awesome bunch,” Alan says, “and I’m proud to be a part of them. The future of the station, and the NSRI as a whole, looks bright!”
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