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Thanks to the keen eyes of a nine-year-old boy, the NSRI was able to locate two paddlers who got into difficulty offshore of Smitswinkelbaai.

Station 10 (Simon’s Town) station commander Darren Zimmerman was at work on Monday 28 March when he received a call from Chris Rumbell who was holidaying with family in Smitswinkelbaai near Simon’s Town in Cape Town. “Chris told me that he and his son could see what they thought looked like a rolling boat in rough sea conditions off Smits,” Darren says. His first thought was that if a boat was rolling, someone must have fallen off.

“I’m on a couple of paddling groups in the False Bay area, and I was aware that there was a paddling event taking place that day,” Darren continues. “I did two things immediately: I activated the rescue crew and I activated the coastwatchers. Then I sent a message to the paddling groups to inform them we’d received this call, and to ask who was out paddling in the vicinity.”

Station 10 crew launched Spirit of Surfski II, the base’s 6.5m inshore rescue craft with skipper Harry Marais, and crew members Sharon Crowther and Matthew Busse on board. (As its name suggests, the rescue vessel was donated by the surfski community through a collective funding programme.)

While the crew launched, Darren responded by car directly to Smitswinkelbaai so he could get eyes on the water. “There are a number of gravel car parks on route from Millers Point to Smitswinkelbaai that are quite elevated. I tried to get myself as high up as possible, but where I still had a phone signal so I could continue my comms with the Rumbells,” Darren explains.

“When I arrived on scene the wind was blowing at 40-odd knots; there were lots of squalls and plenty of white water – it was going to be difficult to spot anything,” Darren recalls. He got back onto the phone with the Rumbells, and this time began chatting to Alex Rumbell, Chris’s nine-year-old son. “The son could see something, but the father couldn’t.” Darren had also activated the Skymed AMS/EMS helicopter because at this stage it felt to him that they were looking for a needle in a haystack.

“I could see Spirit of Surfski II and we then got confirmation from Alex that he could see them too. So basically, I was talking to Alex, who was telling me whether the rescue vessel must go right or left, and then I relayed these instructions to the crew. This way we managed to guide the rescue boat to within about 100m at which point they then had eyes on the casualties. The whole time, we were relying on what the young Mr Rumbell was telling us from what he could see. If the Rumbells hadn’t been there, it would have taken much longer to find the casualties.”

While Darren was making his way to Smitswinkelbaai, NSRI’s Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) informed him they’d received an emergency call but they were unable to reestablish contact as the signal was too weak. They were also unable to establish a position. Darren had also been informed by one of the paddling groups that two paddlers had not arrived at their destination. Both calls had served as confirmation that there were people in trouble.

What stands out for Darren is that despite the howling wind and little-to-no visibility, the youngster managed to see something out there. “That boy had a very keen set of eyes on him! Through his efforts and persistence that he could see something out there, we were able to save two lives.” The two casualties were recovered onto the rescue vessel, taken to Millers Point, where they were met by Cape Medical Response paramedics. After rewarming procedures for hypothermia, they were released without requiring further medical care.

It turns out, one of the paddlers had fallen out of his surfski multiple times. His paddling partner has helped him get up a few times, but eventually he rafted the two surfskis together to create a larger flotation platform. They had tried to activate their SafeTrx alert but had instead pressed the ‘call’ button. That was the call the EOC had received but which was dropped due to poor reception. Activating the alert (rather than calling) will give the EOC a casualty’s location automatically.

The NSRI thanks Chris and Alex Rumbell for the vital part they played in the rescue and commend the paddler for staying with his paddling partner while waiting for help to arrive.

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