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OPERATION CENTRE (EOC)

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Serving one of the busiest fishing harbours in South Africa, this is one of the country’s biggest and oldest sea rescue stations.

Sea Rescue has been part of the fabric of Station Commander Spencer Oldham’s life since he was 19 years old, when he first became a volunteer: a total of 35 years.

“My family emigrated from the United Kingdom when I was 11 and I joined NSRI Station 22M (a mobile station at the time) in Johannesburg when I was 16, with my father. We ran with the Formula 1 powerboat clubs, which used to race on the local dams, as a medical backup. My dad and I had also joined the Benoni Fire Department as ambulance crew and firemen volunteers a few years earlier, and the boats were a new and exciting angle that I hadn’t seen before. We moved down to Cape Town when I was 18 and we joined Station 10 (Simon’s Town), where we became crew, and then transferred to Station 8 ( Hout Bay) when I was 19. I served with my dad until he retired and moved to McGregor after 20 years… And I’m still plodding on.”

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In July 2022, the Hout Bay crew voted for Spencer to take over as Station Commander, which took him by surprise. “It was not something I had down on my list of things to do at Sea Rescue. It is definitely a challenging and time-consuming role, with the magnitude of responsibilities that come with it. Yet I find the role rewarding in that I can now make a difference for the station and the crew in a way that counts.”

Established in 1979, Station 8 is one of the oldest and biggest NSRI bases in the country. The current building was constructed in the late 1980s to replace the containers in the harbour slipway that was the crew’s original home.

There was a catastrophic fire in the base a few years later when work was being done on the station’s 8m vessel “Spirit of Mobile”. The boat was unfortunately destroyed, and the base had to be rebuilt.

“From there, we took on the 12m “Spirit of Rotary” from Walvis Bay, which was eventually replaced with our 10m Brede Class vessel “Nadine Gordimer”. I can remember the day it was officially named at the station, as it was the day after my son was born, and my wife wondered where I was going in my sea rescue kit while she was still in hospital. Volunteering, I tell you!”

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The base has always been situated in the harbour, and has served the local fishing and sailing community since its inception. Hout Bay is still one of the biggest and busiest fishing harbours in South Africa. The station also has one of the best locations for conducting joint operations in the area, so is often used by the other rescue services, such as a JOC (Joint Operations Centre), when the need arises. “When there is a disaster in the area, be it the fires of 2015, or floods, Station 8 is always at the forefront, leading the way. The station has a tradition of getting involved with provincial sports, and you will always see the Station 8 crew on Chapman’s Peak during the Cape Town Cycle Tour or the Two Oceans Marathon.”

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Station 8 currently has four operational crews, each with at least one experienced Class 1 Coxswain, and several Class 3 and Class 4 Coxswains. On average, each crew has 10 members and three trainees.

“We do not have a separate training crew. Trainees are allocated to one of the four crews and must train with each of the four Class 1 Coxswains before qualifying as crew.”

The crews generally train on weekends, and perform night exercises during the week. The station has also embarked on inter-base training practices in the region, and regularly trains with Station 2 (Bakoven), Station 3 (Table Bay), Station 16 (Strandfontein), Station 23 (Wilderness) and Station 26 (Kommetjie).

“We have a Committee meeting followed by a base meeting on the second Wednesday of each month. The base committee is currently made up of all Coxswains and senior shore controllers,” says Spencer. “Overseeing the base committee is the Executive Committee (or XCOM) which is made up of Class 1 Coxswains only. There is also quite a lot of inter-crew training as well, so at any one training session, you might find three or four members from other crews joining the training.”

The Station 8 crew is made up of people from all walks of life, from the youngest trainee of 16 years, all the way up to the oldest, soon turning 77. Forty-one crew and 10 trainees make up a base contingent of 51 in total. Of that, 13 of the base crew are female (25%), which Spencer is proud of.

Indeed, his deputy, Carmen Long, was the first woman in NSRI’s history to qualify as a Class 1 Coxswain.

“I joined Station 8 in 2011, so it’s been 12 years. I wanted to help people, but coming from a different country – Chile – I really didn't know where to start. When a friend mentioned he was part of Sea Rescue, I immediately wanted to find out more, and after the first meeting I attended at the base, I decided there and then that that is what I wanted to do.”

Her desire to help doesn’t stop there. Carmen is also Chairperson for NPO Bright Start, an education support programme that places Hout Bay children from Imizamo Yethu and Hangberg in fee-paying schools, and mentors them and their families through their school life.

She says the growth, experiences and self-discovery the NSRI has brought to her life have been invaluable. “What can I say, they are amazing people. Every single one of them. Committed, caring and reliable. So many different personalities with their own individual backgrounds. It’s so interesting to learn new things from and about them. I have a lot of respect for each one of them.”

Station 8 recently received a new JetRIB, “Spirit of Gabi”, thanks to the generous bequest from the Estate of the late Dr Gabrielle Jacqueline De Bie, and will soon receive the NSRI’s ground-breaking 14,8m ORC (Offshore Rescue Craft) to replace the ageing 10m Brede, which is well timed as plans to rebuild the base are “finally coming to fruition”, says Spencer. “It’s in dire need of a rebuild. This will breathe new life into the crew, as well as the harbour, and hopefully drive the harbour renovations.”

On 25 August, the Station and NSRI fundraisers are hosting an event to support the rebuild. The Suikerbossie Wine & Art Fiesta will see attendants bidding on exclusive wines and artworks, enjoying a curated wine tasting, all while being entertained by one of South Africa’s favourite comedians, Nik Rabinowitz. An NSRI fundraiser has never before had the benefit of so many exclusive wines on offer for auction. Combined with the opportunity to browse and bid on exceptional artworks, it’ll be an evening to remember. A limited number of tickets are on sale, so if you’d like to attend, visit Quicket here < https://qkt.io/ANY8te >.

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Looking ahead, Spencer’s vision is to have at least two classes of Coxswain per crew by 2026. “This has required a redesign of the recruitment process on the base, as well as a relook at the Coxswain training programmes and the criteria for selection. Having the JetRIB on site has enabled this change of policy. We aim to have most of the younger crew qualified as Class 4 Coxswains within a few years of joining. This enables the current Class 4 and Class 3 Coxswains to start training for the higher classes. After all, in my experience, a Coxswain generally makes a great crew person (we have often launched for callouts with two boats crewed by Coxswains only). This can only be achieved if the crew can work together and the egos are kept in check.”

One thing is clear: Spencer, Carmen and their crew are more than capable of upholding this historic station’s impeccable record of rescue excellence, and building on its strengths well into the future.


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