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In the 11th of a series of stories on NSRI bases around the country, we chat to a few crew members at Station 12 (Knysna) to find out more about the base and its family of volunteers.

After speaking to a few of the Station 12 (Knysna) crew members, one thing becomes abundantly clear – this isn’t a group of men and women who simply pitch up for training or callouts, this is a family of volunteers who share knowledge and skills freely, care about each other and the community, support each other and work together as a cohesive unit when it comes to the important business of rescue.

The base, like many NSRI stations, had humble beginnings. Back in the late 1960s, it was mostly up to members of the community to band together, find a boat, find a launch site and establish a sea rescue presence, however small. Run by three crew and housed in a shack close to Thesen Island, the base enjoyed steady growth in its 53-year journey, which included moving to its premises at the Knysna Heads (the perfect spot to launch through the infamous Heads), growing its crew complement and, through the generous donation of a prominent South African company, had a complete station overhaul in 2012.

A real family

“What we have at the base is a family,” says station commander Jerome Simonis. Jerome joined the station in 2001 and was elected to take the helm in 2014. Twenty-one sea-going crew and three shore controllers make up the complement of 24 crew, who are on duty 24/7. Volunteers meet every Wednesday for training, which consists of scenario-based training (simulating real-life rescues), medical refresher courses, chart work and navigation, among others, and once the training/work is done, the crew will braai and socialise for a couple of hours. This time is invaluable for crew, not only for the opportunity to bond with and get to know each other, but also because this is when crew share stories, knowledge and skills in a more informal setting. “There are highly skilled crew at the station,” Jerome says. “More than 60% of the crew have been here for nine or more years. In fact, a couple of years ago, I added up the collective experience, and it amounted to more than 350 years.

“We have two medical doctors at the station, so the knowledge they share with us, specifically around maritime emergency care, is invaluable,” Jerome adds. “It’s all stuff you’re not going to find in a textbook.” The crew contribute in other ways too. “If you look around the base, just about every asset has been donated or sponsored by members of the community, and maintenance is tackled by crew members who bring their ‘day-job’ skills to the station. The doctors restock the medical bags; if we need supplies, crew members and members of the community will give donations in addition to offering their time and services… You can’t put a value on that!”

Three decades of service

Long-serving crew member, medical doctor and ace photographer Dr Berend Maarsingh joined Station 12 in 1992. “I met Graeme Harding at an SAUU diving course. He was the course coordinator and he invited me to visit the station one evening, and the rest, as they say, is history. We are both still involved with Sea Rescue, and Graeme is still my training officer,” Berend smiles.

“The concept of volunteerism really spoke to me (and still does),” Berend says of his motivation to join the NSRI. “It comes with camaraderie, trust and fellowship. You’ll find plenty of these at Station 12, thanks to strong leadership over the last few decades – Mike Elliott through to Jerome Simonis.” Of the gees at the station, Berend says there is plenty of that too! “We take ourselves and our training seriously, as it should be, but we also have a braai and a get together after training so that we can unwind together. I guess friendship and companionship go hand in hand,” he says.

He laughs when he recalls his first Wednesday visit to the base, when he realised, much to his embarrassment, that a slipway is called that for a reason. Bruised ego aside, he accompanied Roger Clancy for sea trials on the station’s 8m vessel The Alex Blaikie. “All I remember is that The Heads were very ‘grumpy’ that night and that Rodger displayed off the wall (literally!) helming skills. ‘Don’t do this at home’ was the best lesson I learnt that night!” Quite an initiation for someone who’s devoted the last 30 years to serving at Station 12.

Berend has certainly experienced some dramatic and memorable rescues during these three decades. For both him and Jerome the Moonraker rescue and the station’s involvement in the devastating fires that swept through Knysna in 2017 come to mind. “When a boat capsizes in the Heads, every second counts,” Berend explains. This certainly was the case when the 8.9m inflatable tourist boat Moonraker capsized in rough conditions, tipping 11 people overboard into the icy water.

Help during devastating times

The Knysna fires dealt a severe blow to the town and its people, with people being trapped between fire and sea, including members of the station. Berend recalls that a number of crew were trapped on the other side of the White Bridge, which was of great concern to Jerome.

“We launched with less than an ideal number of crew onto the estuary in zero visibility (caused by the smoke and salt spray of a howling westerly). Today it's totally unimaginable, but the opposite side of the estuary was not visible. If you opened your eyes, they got stung by the salt and smoke. I was placed on the radio that day and communication was almost impossible due to the overwhelming noise from the fires and wind. Hats off to Declan Nurse who was the coxswain. Some of our crew lost their own homes. Personally, I was quite emotionally touched by the Knysna fires and the impact this would have on my patients, staff and colleagues at Sea Rescue. Now, my heart goes out to all the Sea Rescue crew in KZN during these difficult times with the flooding and how it will affect their personal lives,” Berend says.

Trust is the big thing

Professional nurse Emily Bruwer has been a volunteer at Station 12 for 16 years. She recalls how impressed she was with the NSRI after watching them work in the Knynsa Heads. “I thought, wow, I would love to be a part of that!” Shortly afterwards, Berend walked into the ICU, and Emily got the chance to chat to him a little more about volunteering. After that, she made contact with then station commander Mike Elliott. Emily grew up in Namaqualand, so her knowledge of the sea was minimal. But the learning curve was made easier with the mentorship of Chris van Staden, the late Roger Clancy and Wally Hyman. “These men had (and have) so much knowledge and shared it in a manner that I could relate to. But many crew members mentor without even realising it – there is constant sharing of knowledge and plenty of encouragement,” she explains.

The most valuable lesson she’s learnt while being a volunteer? “You have to trust… trust the coxswain, the vessel, your fellow crew and yourself.” Of the station as a whole, Emily feels she couldn’t be a part of a more amazing crew: “We are more than family to each other. Each one knows where the boundaries are, and we all have the greatest of respect for everyone else. I do believe that is why we have such strong bonds at the base. The NSRI is a wonderful organisation to be part of. It allows you to grow on a different level. Commitment is key. Support of your family is very important, as they will be affected as well. At least try – if it is not for you, everyone will understand.”

A station with heritage

Like Emily, Stavros Alexandrou wanted to be part of something special. “I have a number of friends at Station 12 and after hearing what they did for the community and the pride they have for our base, I wanted to join a team like that and do my part,” he explains.

For Stavros, volunteering is a huge honour, because of the faith people place in your abilities. He highlights commitment, dedication, a good work ethic and reliability as key components of this kind of work.

Like Jerome, Stavros recognises that history plays a huge role in the life of the base. When asked if any single person has made a big impression on him, he finds it difficult to answer. “Every single crew member at our base to me is special. I’m sure every other volunteer around the country will feel the same about their base! But at Station 12, our heritage runs so deep. At least 50% of our crew have over 20 years operational experience: from our station commander, Jerome Simonis, and deputy, Grant van Staden, who have the huge responsibility of keeping our base and crew running at an optimal level, to our management team and our training officers, Marc van Staden and Neil Steenkamp, who keep us on our toes,” he says.

Stavros acknowledges his fellow crew members who are always willing to share the knowledge and skills they’ve accumulated over the years. “Our medical team, Doc Maarsingh and Doc Trollip as well as EMT nurse Emily Bruwer, provides us with the best medical insight – we are truly blessed to have them. Senior coxswain Declan Nurse is always willing to teach and mentor us, and our senior crew – Rein Hofmeyr, Chris van Staden, George Parkes and Neville Eustice – who are the foundation of our station’s heritage are always willing to share their invaluable experience. Each crew member at the base has your back and you have theirs! We are not just fellow crew, we are family!”

Jerome acknowledges that as an NSRI rescue crew, volunteers give a lot to the community, but what they get back is invaluable. “At the NSRI, you’re always developing some skill, always learning something new. You give a lot, but you get a lot back. I’ve learnt skills in the last 21 years that I would never have learnt if I hadn’t joined the NSRI,” he says emphatically.

Station 12 is by all accounts a friendly, welcoming station, a place where mutual respect, skills sharing and camaraderie come naturally to the crew who, no doubt, call the base their second home.

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