In the 10th of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 11 (Port Alfred) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.
In the heart of South Africa’s Sunshine Coast, almost exactly halfway between the larger Eastern Cape towns of East London and Gqeberha lies Port Alfred. Anyone involved in water-related activities and, indeed, most inhabitants of the town’s close-knit communities will be aware of Station 11 (Port Alfred) whose handsome building is situated on the banks of the Kowie River, close to the Port Alfred River and Ski Boat Club.
Interestingly, for a small town, Station 11 has a substantial number of volunteers, 35 in total, made up of sea-going crew, shore crew and trainees. This not only speaks to the quality of the station itself, but also the community as a whole. Being able to depend on a responsive rescue service is to everyone’s benefit.
“I think we probably have one of the coolest stations in the country,” says station commander Juan Pretorius. The station holds management meetings once a month and a crew meeting directly afterwards. “We get together every Wednesday at 5pm for crew training, and our trainees gather each Monday to go through the theory relating to the Wednesday training session. In addition, we hold ad hoc training on a Saturday or Sunday depending on sea conditions,” Juan adds. Wednesdays are quite special, though, as the crew will braai after the training is done. “At sea we have to have each other’s backs, so spending time with fellow crew is important. We get to know one another, find out how everyone’s doing. We’re a proper family and we’ll drop what we’re doing to go assist a fellow crew person at any time.”
Juan joined the station in November 2005, and was elected station commander in early 2009. Barring a year and a half, he’s been at the helm ever since. Juan says the experience of leading the station has been good for him. For starters, “it helped me get over my fear of public speaking,” he says with a smile. “But I really enjoy it, I’ve learnt a lot, and we have an amazing management team that really works well together.”
For Juan, a simple rescue a few years back will always take top spot in his memory bank. “We responded to a rubber duck that had capsized in the surf at East Beach, about a mile from our station. When we arrived, a father, son and daughter were safely ashore, but the daughter was very shaken up. I tasked one of our female crew to look after her. The son and father were fine, but we were concerned the daughter might show symptoms of secondary drowning, so we arranged for her to go to hospital for a check-up and observation.
“When she heard she needed to go to hospital she asked the female crew member to please come with her. She had been comforting the little girl, who had been clinging on to her, for about half an hour. They had never met before, and in that short space of time had formed an incredible bond. For me it was out of this world. The amount of trust that the people out there have in the NSRI is just incredible. And how quickly we gain their trust. It must say something about what we do.”
For deputy station commander Gerrit Cloete, a whale disentanglement stands out as the most unique rescue of his career. He tells the story: “It was our station’s first whale disentanglement. The light was low and there were many whales in the area, and we couldn’t locate the one that was entangled. So, we relaunched our vessels on the Monday morning and located the whale just off Port Alfred.
“Not having the correct whale disentanglement equipment and using makeshift equipment made the exercise quite interesting. After wrestling with long crayfish pot ropes and a grumpy whale for quite a while, we managed to get all the ropes cut from the whale. It is an indescribable feeling that one gets from helping and freeing such a creature.”
Gerrit owns a leisure boating company and prior to joining the station, he’d been maintaining two of the station’s boats. He got to know the crew quite well over time, and decided to join in 2018, recognising that the station is run like a “family station”. It was a good fit, and he was elected deputy in May 2021. Gerrit is also the station’s maintenance manager, a role that includes overseeing and co-ordinating the maintenance of all the station’s assets.
Of the gees at the station, Gerrit agrees with Juan. “We’re a very jovial bunch. We know how to have fun and we support each other,” he says, “but we also know how to get a serious task at hand done.” Gerrit has great admiration for fellow crew member Keryn van der Walt.
“She is one special lady. She was the first female crew person, first female coxswain and first female statcom in the institution’s history. She has spent her entire 29-year NSRI career at Station 11. She has a wealth of knowledge that she shares willingly with anyone wishing to learn. We are very proud and very fortunate to have someone like Keryn at the station,” he says.
Gaining a family
Twenty-one-year-old shore-crew trainee Sinead Hayes has felt right at home since she joined the station in February 2021. Of her decision to join the station she says, “I have always had a passion for helping others and being a part of a caring community. I had just moved to Port Alfred and didn’t know many people. Then I met Samantha Solz. We became close friends and she explained to me what the NSRI was about and what a close-knit community it is. She encouraged me to submit my application and give it a go. I immediately felt at home right off the bat and have not once regretted my decision. I wouldn’t say I made new friends but rather that I gained a few extra family members!”
One of these new family members is Aunty Trish Solz, also shore crew. “We often refer to her as our Base Mom. She always has faith in everyone to be their best self. She stood by me through a very challenging year (2021). She has taught me so many things not only applicable to the station but in my personal life as well as.”
For Sinead, the learnings at the station have been immense. Volunteering has taught her many values, but there are three things that she relies on the most: discipline, communication and teamwork. “Without these, we would never be able to work as a successful team,” she shares. For anyone thinking of joining the NSRI, she has the following advice: “Just do it. I can promise you, you will never regret it and you’ll never stop learning.” Of course, a great contributing factor to her enthusiasm is that the station is like a second home. “We have such a wonderful atmosphere at the base where no judgement is present. Everyone cares for each other. We aren’t only there for each other at the base but outside of its doors as well.”
Behind every successful sea-going crew are the shore controllers who manage operations behind the scenes. Howard Butler, or Uncle H as he is fondly known, joined the station in 2007 as a shore controller. Now 76, Howard has been sailing since he was eight years old. He may have hung up his proverbial life jacket but wanted to still be involved in some form or another. After moving to Port Alfred, he decided to join the station.
NSRI fulfils an important role in the town, and Howard believes the associated responsibility is immense. If he had to give new crew any advice, it would be: “Make sure you know your stuff; one day someone’s life will be in YOUR hands – don’t drop it.” Howard is happy in his role as shore controller and loves his fellow crew who have provided him with an “amazing family and a meaningful sense of worth”. Howard is retired, but never idle. When not on duty, he is involved with Historic Bathurst, and also runs the Sunshine Coast Feeding Scheme, which his late wife, Kay, started. “I feed about 120 pre-school kids in the local township,” he says.
Gerrit believes the key to the success of any station lies in “mutual respect for each other, and respect for the institute, its values, and its assets”. The crew, who range in age from 17 to 76, appear to have embraced these values wholeheartedly. There on the river, close to Port Alfred’s iconic little bridge, is a place that people call home, where future generations of crew are trained and mentored, where experienced crew share knowledge, wisdom and skills. Station 11 (Port Alfred) turns 52 this month! And we wish all the crew continued success.
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