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Every two years, NSRI Training Manager Graeme Harding travels to St Helena in the mid-Atlantic to conduct training with the St Helena Sea Rescue Service. It’s a time he relishes, not only in terms of doing what he loves, but also spending time with extraordinary people in an extraordinary place.

One can say with some certainty that Graeme is luckier than most visitors to St Helena Island. Tourists may enjoy a sojourn of a week or two, inevitably fall in love with the place, and then must leave. Graeme’s training commitments mean he gets to stay a lot longer. Granted, it’s work, not a holiday, but on his recent visit, he was able to enjoy the island at its festive best, over Christmas and New Year.

But, back to the work component…

In 2015, an airport was finally built on St Helena, a project long in the planning, and not without its challenges as the island is rugged and by no means large (measuring about 16 by 8km). The airstrip was constructed at Dry Gut in the east of the island, with the approach and take-off path over Prosperous Bay. And, according to international aviation regulations, if a landing and take-off path is over the sea, the area must have a dedicated rescue service.

The provision of the service was put out to tender, and Cape Town-based boat builder Gemini won the bid, and they approached Graeme to provide the training component. “We (the NSRI) discussed it, and decided we would accept it as an NSRI venture, under the auspices of the NSRI,” Graeme explains

Training the new crew

Graeme spent two months on the island in 2015 training up the fledgling crew. This included search and rescue techniques, navigation, first aid, rescue scenarios, and they did several circumnavigations of the island by day and night. They also did search and rescue training using both radar and RDF (radio direction finders), missing diver and man overboard procedures and setting up a joint operations command (JOC). Graeme returns every two years to maintain the training that follows the same exacting protocols as all the bases in South Africa. “They do everything we do,” he says.

Graeme set sail to St Helena on the cargo ship the MV Helena on 4 December 2021, arriving seven days later on the 11th. “The currents are favourable for this leg of the journey; the trip back takes nine days,” he explains. Normally Graeme would travel on the RMS St Helena, which was sold after the airport was built, so his experience was a little different this time round. “An adventure, nevertheless,” he says. “It was more of a bouncy journey,” he smiles, “but I got to spend time with the crew and occasionally joined them on the bridge, which I wouldn’t normally get the chance to do.”

Training St Helena 1

Training days

Sea Rescue St Helena has a permanent, employed crew of eight and several auxiliary crew members who assist when needed. They’re led by Simon Wade, who has been station manager since the base was established in 2015. Training days started with boat checks, as they are a running service, followed by lectures till lunchtime, after which the crew would do practical components. The days would end with the obligatory boat cleaning.

“The training included navigation and radar training, and scenario training. Basically, we’re getting the new crew up to speed and refreshing skills for the established crew. We were busy for about eight hours a day and followed the same training protocols we do at home. Crew also wrote the navigation and collision regulations exams,” Graeme explains. “They also have access to our e-learning portal, so can continue with training in this capacity.”

St Helena has a population of 4 439 (according to the 2021 census), and most of the residents are water users, either for work or leisure purposes. The island has a fishing fleet that operates about 80 nautical miles off the island, and then there are also racing yachts that stop over at St Helena, most typically those that take the Cape to Caribbean or South America routes. The crew also serves as standby for the 94-seater airplanes during take-off and landing. The station is equipped with two 8.5m Gemini RIBs, a 10m cabin RIB and a 4.2 RIB. By all accounts, the crew have their work cut out for them, keeping an eye on the island and its surrounds.

Graeme took a break from 24 December to 4 January to celebrate Christmas and New Year on the island, which he says is a magical time. “Just about everyone turns up for the ‘Festival of Lights’ and Christmas Eve parade. It’s a big celebration here,” Graeme explains.

Work resumed from 5 January until the 24th, when Graeme bade farewell to the island and its Saints, as residents are known, and got ready for his nine-day journey home. All in all a successful and happy month and a half.

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