The origins of the NSRI are tied to this tiny seaside town, where the current crew continues their proud legacy.
Today, the NSRI is a nationwide organisation that is synonymous with sea rescue and drowning prevention excellence in the minds of South Africans – yet few are aware that its origins are tied to the popular holiday destination of Still Bay, a small seaside town on the southern coast.
In 1966, a tragedy occurred offshore of “the Bay of Sleeping Beauty”, as Still Bay is sometimes known: four fishing vessels went out to sea and only one returned. The devastating loss of life captured Simons Town teacher Patti Price’s attention. She was no stranger to the terror of being out at sea in distress, having been rescued as a child from a wrecked ship in the English Channel by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).
She was moved to begin an impassioned letter-writing campaign to various media, stating her case for a sea rescue service in South Africa, similar to RNLI. Her efforts were acknowledged by the Society of Master Mariners of South Africa who started the South African In-Shore Rescue Service (SAISRS) in 1967, which was later renamed to the National Sea Rescue Institute.
It wasn’t until 1997, though, that an NSRI base was established in Still Bay by a few local residents, housed in a 3 x 9m Wendy house in the harbour for the first nine years of operation.
In 2006, a new station was built just outside the harbour on municipal land. “John Muir – the first station commander – was the primary driving force behind the initial formation of the local NSRI station, and the building of our station house,” says current station commander Jean du Plessis, who takes obvious pride in the history of his base. “Charl Haupt designed the building, and Cristie de Kok was the builder – both were also founding members of the local station.”
Sadly, John passed away some years ago, and Jean – who was invited by John to join the NSRI in 2002 – has been leading the crew since 2020.
Currently, the crew consists of 30 active volunteers.
“Our station is made up of an eclectic bunch of people with a true sense of family,” says Jean. “Under the flag of the NSRI, each volunteer knows that they are part of something bigger than any one individual, and we serve our community as best we can. Whenever a crew member is ill or in need, we take care of each other. Highs and lows are shared and birthdays celebrated.”
The crew gathers every Thursday and every other Saturday for training and/or maintenance. “Currently, the size of our crew is close to historical capacity, however new initiatives and growth areas, such as rescue swimming, lifeguarding and the possibility of a satellite station at Jongensfontein [a nearby coastal settlement], will all require more volunteers.”
In a small community such as Still Bay, the station plays a greater role than would be the norm in more metropolitan areas, says Jean: “The community tend to look to us for assistance and guidance with any incident. The weekend of 16 September 2023, when the coast was battered by enormous waves and storm surges, is a good example. NSRI volunteers were responsible for keeping the public informed and safe at the local harbour and on the surrounding coastal area.”
The base has use of an 8.5m RIB, and in February this year received a new JetRIB, “Marlene”, named after Still Bay local Marlene Barnes who had recently been given the all-clear (remission) after battling bone cancer.
In the past 12 years, Station 31 has assisted 80 vessels, towed 18 vessels, assisted 53 persons in distress and saved 26 lives.
“We are typically involved in the full range of rescues that may be encountered along the South African coastline,” says Jean. “With high-energy beaches and an estuary mouth in the centre of Still Bay, drowning incidents are common. We also encounter ski boat and commercial vessel incidents, with either the vessel or crew experiencing difficulty.”
In 2022, the base was honoured by the Stilbaai Business Chamber with a Silver Award for Excellence and Innovative Community Service.
“When I joined the NSRI, I thought it would be an adventure and a learning opportunity. I quickly realised that it meant much more than that. While I do value the opportunity to serve my community and to make a difference in people’s lives, mentoring volunteers and being able to transfer my skills and knowledge are also very satisfying to me,” says Jean.
Guillaume Muir, one of the youngest crew volunteers at the NSRI at 20 years of age, has followed in his father John’s footsteps, and by all accounts is making him – and his station commander – proud. “My dad founded Station 31, so I’ve been here ever since I can remember. He passed away when I was four years old – after that, his friend Rico Menezies became Station Commander, and I’ve remained there to this day. I’ve always been treated with respect, even though I’m often much younger than others on the training courses. If you show the ou toppies that you are serious about what you’re doing, they will treat you like a crew member, not a kid. In that time, I’ve learnt a lot about rescue and the ocean, but the most important thing I’ve learnt is how to make decisions in and out of the NSRI.”
The station currently has two deputies: Lian Combrinck and Stephen Groves.
Lian, like Guillaume, followed in his father’s footsteps, and found his vocation through the NSRI: "From the age of 10 I've been my dad's shadow at the NSRI. I always admired what they were capable of, and how they operate with such 'ease' in critical conditions. I stuck around and got a free boat ride every now and then, until I finally got the chance to join as a junior member in 2014 at the age of 16. I didn't realise it back then, but I made one of the best investments in my life by joining the NSRI. All the training and experience lead me to my calling, and I became a paramedic after school. I developed core skills and gained valuable experience, becoming a coxswain in 2020, and began serving as co-deputy station commander from 2021.”
For Stephen, who was born in the Free State, the prospect of joining the NSRI was as remote as a lone outpost on a distant planet… “I never imagined that I would one day be part of the NSRI. In 2018 I went on a two week Zero to Hero course. My expectations were totally met – and then some! Since then, I’ve worked hard to become a coxswain and to instill that same knowledge and passion that I was taught, in as many trainees as possible.”
As for the future, Station 31 will continue to serve its community and its people efficiently and sustainably, says Jean, honouring its proud legacy and origins.
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