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In the ninth of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 10 (Simon’s Town) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.

The past few years have been exciting and busy for Station 10 (Simon’s Town). The base turned 50 in 2019, the building’s overhaul was completed in mid-2020, and the much-anticipated 14.8 m ORC was welcomed in 2021. These events are important in the life of a station: milestones, achievements and assets not only recognise the crew’s volunteer efforts and nurture the spirit at a station, but they contribute significantly to how well crew can do their jobs.

Station 10, like many NSRI bases around the country, had humble beginnings. The base was established in 1969, running operations from a garage located behind Simon’s Town’s town hall, close to where the base is now. In those days, crew had to move the rescue boat across a gravel car park and launch from one of the False Bay Yacht Club’s slipways. Much has changed in 53 years, and current station commander Darren Zimmerman has witnessed much of this in his 31 years at the station. Darren, who is the service manager for Cape Medical Response, joined the station when he was still at school, and has been station commander since 2004. “Sea Rescue is pretty much my life,” he says.

Running the station

Up until a few years ago, crew meetings were held once a month, but the Covid-19 landscape changed all that. “We realised people’s circumstances had changed – time and financial pressures increased, so we turned to social media, which gave us a unique opportunity to introduce ongoing and transparent communications with the crew via our station’s WhatsApp group. We use this platform for all our important comms and discussions, and are in almost daily contact with each other,” Darren says. Face-to-face crew meetings are held every three months now.

Station 10 has three crews: Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Each crew is on duty for one week, from Thursday to Thursday, which means being on duty every third week. “Whichever crew is on duty over the weekend will come to the station on the Saturday to do equipment and vessel checks and any maintenance that is required. If there’s enough time after that, we’ll do an hour of theory, like first aid for instance,” Darren explains. “Then on the Sunday, we put in a few hours of sea training with both our vessels. We run through standard operating procedures (SOPs) for launch and recovery, towing of vessels, man-overboard drills and patient recovery. It’s a great way for new crew to learn the ropes, and for operational crew to polish their skills.”

Station 10 has 60 volunteers consisting of 35 operational crew, 13 training crew and 12 coastwatchers who are located in high areas from Muizenberg to Partridge Point and play an invaluable role as “eyes on the water”, assisting with rescues in progress.

An awesome gees

Station 10 Darren

Darren feels blessed to lead the Station 10 crew. “They are the most amazing people and very positive.” he says enthusiastically. “We’re very much a family. Our crew members come from different walks of life, have different backgrounds and the age range varies, but once they walk through the base door, they become a collective, sharing a common goal.”

The smooth running of a station rests on the culture developed by the leadership of the station. For Class 1 coxswain Hein Scheepers, who has been a volunteer for almost eight years, it’s a combination of open communication, trust, good management and fun. Hein, who is a navigation officer onboard the SAS Umhloti, says the beauty of volunteering is that you are working with people “who want to be there”. “You get to join a naturally diverse group of people with different skill sets. It offers youngsters the opportunity to work with older people, fishermen to work with lawyers, plumbers to work with beauticians. It creates a group of people who are different in almost every way, but who come together as a team because they all have good hearts,” he adds.

Hein’s most memorable callout occurred when he was part of the crew taking a family out to scatter their loved one’s ashes. “We took a family to Muizenberg to scatter ashes and had minimum crew onboard. Darren was coxswain, Matthew Melidonis, Gary Fulton and I were crew. We were returning to Simon’s Town when we heard panicked voices on the radio. We realised someone was in distress and almost immediately Darren spotted the capsized Sea Scouts boat drifting into the harbour in the sudden northwester.

“As we came closer we noticed two kids sitting on the hull and a few more hanging on the side. Gary immediately went to change into a wetsuit while Matthew and I prepped throw lines. Darren backed the Spirit of Safmarine III up perfectly and we recovered three kids with the use of the throw lines while the rest swam to Rescue 10.”

What was amazing for Hein was how the grieving family participated in the rescue. “They cuddled the shivering kids in blankets and took care of them while we docked the boat. This was not just a day when they said their goodbyes but was also a day they helped save kids.”

A bit like Superman

Station 10 Hein

When asked about mentors or special characters at Station 10, Hein immediately singles out his station commander. “If you look at all the facts you can’t disagree,” he smiles. “Darren has been at Sea Rescue since he was a young boy, and station commander for almost two decades. He is an exceptionally skilled sailor and his senses are second only to Superman. He can identify objects before anyone else can, distinguishing different types of smoke and where it’s coming from, and is able to understand all the ‘blabber’ on the radio.

“I’ve been a Class 1 coxswain for more than three years and a naval officer for more than 10, and I learn something every time I go to sea with him. His helming is exceptional: he is calm and collected during rescues and he has phenomenal leadership and people skills. He can bring calm to any situation and is a fantastic motivator. Darren is a special person and a great mentor.”

Water baby

Station 10 Mia

Eighteen-year-old Mia Leisegang grew up in a family of sailors and paddlers, so it seemed inevitable that she would develop a love for sailing and the water. Her inspiration to volunteer came about after witnessing a number of rescues, including her sister and father’s. “Volunteering is a way to give back to the community, and also a chance to meet new and diverse people and make new friends,” she says. Getting her crew badge was an amazing experience. “I cried happy tears. It felt like such a massive achievement – I had finally managed to reach a milestone that felt miles away,” she shares. Mia adds that she has Darren and Simon McDonnell to thank. “They stood by my side every step of the way, and supported and guided me in a way nobody else could. They motivated me and put in the time to ensure I qualified as crew and felt confident doing it.”

Mia is looking forward to eventually becoming a coxswain, but for now she wants to focus on growing and advancing with what she already knows. For anyone thinking of joining NSRI, she says, “Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. Just go for it!” As for her own station, she says, “We are one big family. The love and support from each and every volunteer is truly indescribable. The Station 10 family is waiting to welcome any new volunteers with open arms and will make them feel at home.”

A memorable rescue

Yvette Station 10

Class 3 coxswain and training Class 1 coxswain Yvette du Preez is equally enthusiastic about the station and its family of volunteers. “I joined Station 10 in 2006. I was inspired by an article I read in Full Circle magazine. I walked into the base one Sunday, met Darren and the crew and never left,” she says. She adds that there is so much accumulated knowledge and expertise at the station that stretches back for generations. Among the people she admires are Patti Price (who is known for championing the cause to start a sea-based rescue service in South Africa), late volunteers Chops Craig and Denis Zimmerman and station commander Darren. “All these people love(d) sharing their knowledge and love for the ocean. Their compassion and their eagerness to make the world a better place, makes me strive to be like them,” she says.

Yvette singles out dignity, kindness, compassion and teamwork as essential to volunteering. And of course, always being safe. These factors certainly played a role in one of Yvette’s most memorable callouts. “A surfskier was paddling the Millers to Fish Hoek run. Conditions were unfavourable – a 40-50 knot southeaster and 3.5 metre swells. His ski broke in half somewhere off Murdock Valley, and he was floating in the water and unable to give us an exact position.”

Yvette recalls making 42 calls to him to try to help to keep him calm. “The reception was really bad.” She adds. “Light was fading fast, and after searching for about an hour in the worst conditions, Darren was contacted by a concerned bystander who lived high on the mountainside who had been watching events unfold. He was able to locate the casualty and using a telescope could guide the crew to his location. With minutes to spare until complete darkness, the rescue vessel was guided to his position and we brought him onboard.”

Like Mia, Yvette believes one shouldn’t think too much about joining the NSRI. “Do it today! The only regret I have is that I didn’t join earlier!”

Also read...

Base Showcase: Station 9 (Gordon’s Bay)
Base Showcase: Station 8 (Hout Bay)
Base Showcase: Station 7 (East London)

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