With one of the NSRI’s longest serving volunteers at the helm and a wealth of rescue experience, the Richards Bay NSRI crew are well-equipped to serve this stretch of coastline.
Of the 46 NSRI rescue bases located throughout South Africa, only Station 19 can boast of a station commander with 50 years of rescue experience under their belt. At 75, Mike Patterson, who says he feels younger than 40, is a co-founder of Station 19, as well as one of the NSRI’s longest-serving volunteers, whose wealth of knowledge is an invaluable asset to the Richard’s Bay crew.
“I joined the NSRI quite by accident in 1972,” he says. “I grew up on the KwaZulu-Natal coast, and was always drawn to the sea, first as a body-surfing fanatic, then a ski-boat fishing fanatic. I was also an avid racing driver. That all came to an end, though, when a man named El Williams ‘conned’ me into signing up as an NSRI crewman. Not much later, people started talking about establishing a real station – that was when things really got rolling – and in 1976, we built the first Station 19 base ourselves using surplus building materials from the harbour, which was still under construction.”
The initial building is no longer the home of the Station 19 crew, which relocated 13 years ago, but it is still in use by the Zululand Yacht Club. Today, the Richards Bay crew is comprised of 32 dedicated volunteers, from all walks of life and age groups, responsible for offshore rescues from the Tugela River mouth to Kosi Bay. The establishment of an NSRI base in St Lucia (Station 40) only a few years ago has lightened their load considerably, though, says Mike’s deputy station commander Norman Rautenbach.
Norman joined the NSRI in March 2012. “A friend of mine, Cornel du Toit, was an active member. They needed additional crew, and I wanted to do something for the community. It has been an awesome experience, I’ve gained a whole new family within the Sea Rescue community. It tests your character and limits, you learn and grow as a person.”
Mike echoes this sentiment – the lessons he’s learnt volunteering for the NSRI have contributed to his considerable success in the business world (he has served several terms as President of the Zululand Chamber of Commerce & Industry as well as on the boards of similar business industry bodies).
“I applied what I learnt about people, which is that you can’t tell people what to do, you have to lead by example. The NSRI taught me what it means to be a role model that people will follow – and that the most important members of a team are the junior crew, who need the most support. It’s the same in business,” he says.
The Station 19 crew take part in high-level training on a monthly basis. Crews train every second weekend, and then once a month, they take part in paramedic training and head out to sea to conduct scenario-based rescue training.
In his half-century of rescue work, Mike has accumulated a slew of awards and accolades – from NSRI Honorary Life Member and Honorary Life Governor to the Marmion Marsh Award – and participated in enough heroic, high-risk rescues to fill a hefty tomb (his daughter is constantly prodding him to produce a memoir).
Yet one stands out for its endurance-testing time frame: 55 hours. “Our rescue of 10 people off a fishing trawler in the late ‘70s set a record, which still stands, for the longest and most distant rescue operation,” says Mike. The trawler was floundering six miles from the Mozambican border, which meant Mike and his fellow crew members travelled 160 nautical miles to undertake the extraordinary 55-hour rescue mission, reports the Zululand Observer.
Norman too has his fair share of daring rescues to recount, but perhaps the most memorable is a 25-hour rescue mission in 2013, to retrieve a 30 metre-long landing craft, Sea Express ll, which was dead in the water near Leven Point after a lightning strike caused an electrical failure.
The Richard’s Bay crew launched their Brede-class Spirit of Richards Bay lifeboat “midmorning in a south-westerly gale, with swells of 10-12m,” says Norman. “We arrived on the scene around 17h00 and were not prepared for how large their vessel was. We all gulped a little, as ours was only 12m long. We decided that we would try to tow them if we could, as they were in a marine reserve, and we did not want the vessel to wash up there. Our challenge was that our bridle was way too short, and we did not have a line heavy or long enough to use. The only rope they had that we could use was in the water attached to four drums acting as a drogue.
“We rigged a line around the rope and used Spirit of Richards Bay to drag the 210L drums up and cut them free, to get as much of the usable rope as possible. We then used the rope as a bridle and had the Sea Express ll crew attach the tow line, and so began our long tow home. At 19h30 we started to pick up speed and realised that the bridle had parted. By the time we had recovered the tow rope and reattached it, we were back where we’d started. We again set off at about 3 to 5 knots.
"Due to the tow, our rescue boat did not pitch and roll normally, so it wasn’t long before all of us – except Mike – were seasick. The next morning, at 05h00, the majority (but not all) of the crew was changed just south of Mapelane lighthouse. Fortunately, during the night, the wind had subsided. Sea Express ll was towed into Richards Bay port just after midday. This is one rescue that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
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