This female-led station has been an integral part of the community for 50 years.
Leafing through the St Francis Bay station records – including meticulous newspaper cuttings, photographs of noteworthy events such as crew members’ weddings, and extraordinary fundraising feats (from pancake sales to cycling to Mt Kilimanjaro) – two things become apparent: Station 21 has an incredibly rich history not only of saving lives and service to its community; it is also part of the fabric of St Francis Bay, embedded in the soul of this sleepy seaside village.
Perhaps that’s because both Station 21 and St Francis Bay, as it is known today, owe their existence to the same man: Leighton Hulett. In 1954, Leighton bought a piece of land in what was simply called ‘St Francis’ at the time, named for the patron saint of sailors. His goal was to add a marina, and he developed a man-made canal system, which eventually became the village ‘St Francis Bay’. He was also responsible for establishing an NSRI base circa 1972 and took the helm as its station commander for four years.
This year, the station celebrated 50 years of service. “My favourite story about Leighton is that he used to have a Saturday movie night on the tennis court, with an old projector which would often not work,” says Sara Jane Smith, current commander of Station 21. “Families used to take their picnic blankets and paint tins, and pay a small entrance fee, all of which funded the station’s first boat shed on the river.”
Sara joined the NSRI with a friend in 2009. She was new in town, and had no sea rescue experience (although she had a background in motocross, she was used to physical challenges and adrenaline). “It was the first time I’d ever been on a boat! And that was it – the bug bit me.”
Today, she has been in the role of Statcom for six years, one of the NSRI’s female station commanders, with the distinction of also having a female deputy: Yvette Maritz.
Yvette joined the NSRI eight years ago, after moving to St Francis Bay from Gauteng following a tragic robbery that left her partner dead. The sense of helplessness she felt spurred her to volunteer.
She shares one of her most memorable rescues: “In 2015, a chokka vessel capsized in a storm early one morning. Having been in medic training the previous day, I never imagined I would be using the techniques I had learnt to save someone’s life so soon, but that’s what happened. I wasn’t on the boat that went out to rescue the survivors, but I was able to treat one of them for hypothermia when he was brought back to shore. Eight people drowned, eight survived, and three bodies were not found. After working throughout the night, we still didn’t know if there was anyone trapped under the hull. A decision was taken to cut through the hull, but before that happened, at about 11am, another crew member miraculously managed to swim out from beneath the hull. That was an amazing feeling.”
The station’s 23 active crew train weekly every Monday after work and one Sunday morning a month. The station also has a junior academy – a total of four different training teams: the Juniors, the Alphas, the Bravos and the Crew & Coxswains. “Monday is normally very busy, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the lecture room,” says Sara. “Most of the crew and coxswains attend, often taking responsibility for different training teams. On a Sunday morning, typically we start with breakfast, then we like to push scenario training, which could be anything from a four- to eight-hour session.”
The St Francis Bay harbour serves as an important operations point for chokka and long-line fishing industries, which means the Station 21 crew are often called on to facilitate medical evacuations, one of the most dangerous types of rescue operations.
When asked about her station’s biggest successes, Sara laughs: “There are so many! The first that springs to mind was winning the Best RIB Station Award in 2017. I am also incredibly proud of our collaborations. At the beginning of 2018, we set out to establish meaningful relationships and cross training with our neighbouring stations, which we’ve achieved. We also wanted to grow our female crew numbers, and we’ve done so. We’ve established a junior academy, with such a thriving bunch of juniors who are really invested, it’s quite beautiful to watch. We’re also in the process of upgrading our base building, a major accomplishment. All these successes tell the story of our base and crew.”
As with most people who dedicate their lives to service, Sara feels she has received far more than she gives. “People matter. The absolute best feeling in the world is to watch someone succeed in their NSRI career and then take all they have learnt about giving, caring, growing, and apply it to their home and work life. The only way to do great work is to love what you do, and NSRI people inspire me through their love and passion every day.”
[Leighton Hulett information source: https://southafrica.co.za/hist...]
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