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What started out as a tranquil cruise one Saturday morning in December, turned into a nightmare for 21 passengers when the charter boat they were aboard struck a reef. Thankfully, the mass rescue effort was “a huge success”.

While 23 December will no doubt be etched into the memories of the survivors of a charter cruise that ran aground on a reef just offshore of Vetch’s Pier, Durban, involving the coordination of multiple rescue services – each of the 21 passengers was successfully rescued, with only one requiring hospitalisation due to shock (and was released shortly after).

The incident unfolded in full view of Station 5 (Durban) commander Roy Wienand, who was enjoying breakfast at Point Water Sports Club (which is directly in line with the reef, about 150 metres from the beach) at around 10am. Needless to say, NSRI duty crew were immediately activated – and Roy did not get to finish his breakfast.

“Initially the passengers were not in any immediate danger as the boat was on the reef and above water,” says Roy. “After about 10 minutes, though, waves started breaking over the boat and there was extreme danger to passengers and crew, who could have been washed overboard.”

One of the Station 5 crew, Benic van der Merwe, who was with Roy on the beach, immediately radioed the base and both Station 5 rescue boats, which happened to be on the water about 10 minutes away.

“Initially a number of private boats close by tried to assist, but they were not trained in such conditions and actually made it more unsafe, for themselves and the causalities. So we asked them to all stand off and let NSRI take over when our boats arrived,” says Roy.

Durban Charter Boat Rescue 2024 2

At the same time, eThekwini lifeguards and LSA (Lifesaving South Africa) KZN lifeguards on had responded using their lifeguard rescue craft and boards. eThekwini PRC (Parks, Recreation and Culture) Law Enforcement and eThekwini Metro Police also responded.

“Multiple rescue services can be a huge help,” says Roy, “but only if you immediately set up joint operational command (JOC) and have an overall situation commander. On the water, the Coxswain on our rescue craft ‘Spirit of Surfski 6’, Paul Bevis, immediately took control. On the beach, the life guards initially tried to run the JOC, but SAPS S&R took over as soon as they arrived. We assisted SAPS on the beach, but our main role took place on the water at the reef.”

On arrival on the scene it was found that a handful of passengers had been evacuated off the charter boat by lifeguards, who had swum the passengers, in life-jackets, to rescue boards and then floated them to lifeguard rescue craft on which they were brought ashore safely without incident.

An eThekwini lifeguard senior coordinator and an NSRI rescue swimmer were brought to the charter boat onboard an eThekwini lifeguard rescue craft. They boarded and initiated calm, assessed the situation and determined an action plan to get the remaining crew and passengers off the vessel after it became clear that the vessel would remain hard aground until at least high tide.

In a well-coordinated rescue operation, the remaining crew and passengers were taken onboard the eThekwini lifeguard rescue craft and an NSRI rescue craft – and were safely delivered, in relays, to The Durban Undersea Club (DUC) dive boat which stood by on the scene.

“The whole rescue took about 40 minutes,” says Roy, “but was done in a calm and very controlled manner using the lifeguard RIBs and our 4.7m RIB, and both our bigger boats. There were no injuries and it was a huge success. One lady did go to hospital in shock but was released soon after. Her three young children were on the boat and were looked after at our base until their aunt arrived.”

It’s not yet clear what caused the vessel to run aground on the reef that morning, and the reason may only be revealed pending an investigation by the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA). In any event, Roy is proud of how his crew handled the rescue.

“They were magnificent, both sea and land crew. Our training and skills kicked in automatically and everyone played an extremely important role in the overall success of this mass rescue, even down to helping casualties and their families back at our base with drinks and snacks and arranging phone calls and lifts. Some patients were so scared they did not want to get off the casualty boat, and it took special skill to get them to trust us and get into our small RIB in order to be taken to safety!”

Thanks to the swift and well-coordinated response of multiple rescue services, a potential disaster was averted, and those rescued were able to enjoy the rest of their festive season.

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