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We caught up with National Training Facilitator Graeme Harding to find out more.

The NSRI prides itself on being at the forefront of international standards when it comes to drowning prevention – even raising the bar in many instances. Which is why the commencement of its first-ever Search and Rescue (SAR) training course for Class 1 stations is an important new development.

“There have been a lot of changes and advancements in SAR technology in the last five years,” says Graeme Harding, the Institute’s National Training Facilitator,“ and the NSRI has to stay up to par with international developments in the SAR space. Systems on the boats have changed. Communication tech has changed. It was high time that we updated our crew’s skills and knowledge.”

Another consideration was the turnover of volunteers. The NSRI’s 50+ bases located throughout the country are run exclusively by volunteers. Ideally, there are older, more experienced crew on hand to help bring young, new recruits up to speed, yet inevitably, as time marches on, some of the older crew retire from service, and it is essential for Graeme and his colleagues to step in and ensure there are no skills gaps.

Together with Operations Director Brett Ayres and Operations Manager Charl Maritz, Graeme has put together a comprehensive course that includes the basics of navigation set forth in the International Maritime Organisation’s IAMSAR manual, among other essential skills.

“Some of it is very technical,” says Graeme. “There are drift vector sheets, data sheets – we need to make sure modern crews are fully au fait with all of it.”

The course also addresses the "heuristics" of SAR. “When it comes to rescue work, there’s a lot of data to process, a lot of facts and information. When under pressure, crew will revert to training, so we need to help our crew develop an instinct, a gut feeling, that is accurate and will help them save time when it comes to decision-making that could save a life. Often, there isn’t time to consider every variable, so developing that instinct is essential. And that comes with experience – and training.”

Graeme offers an example of a ‘drift buoy’ used by the NSRI in SAR situations, which is thrown in the water in the search area and can give exact information about the surface-currents and wind. This information can then be used to estimate a drift trajectory. “It can make the search area roughly two-thirds smaller,” says Graeme.

However, the real skill lies in taking unknown variables into account, such as self-rescue, where the casualty may have attempted to swim in an unanticipated direction, taking them outside of the search ‘box’.

“This is a pun we use often, to ‘think outside the box’,” says Graeme.

Now that training has commenced, a new Class 1 station will receive the SAR training each month until November; while Class 2 stations will receive the training in 2025.

Long-time volunteer at Station 3 (Table Bay) Paula Leech was one of the first to complete the weekend-long training: “We started with a theoretical component, which set the tone as to how the practical session would play out. It had an organised flow to it. The content was not overly technical and was easy to follow, especially since I had already trained quite a lot with search patterns. I personally found the course to be very interesting as we were introduced to new tools that make it so much easier to calculate a potential search area. I’m a huge fan of technology if it can add value and help save time. I'm 52 and still learning new things at Sea Rescue. For example, in the past, whenever we’ve needed to work out a potential search area, we’ve always been a bit dismissive of the actual current calculation, thinking that it did not make much of a difference in the final calculation as we assumed the current in Cape Town was negligible. We were wrong. It turns out that adding the current calculation makes a significant difference in the overall search area. That was a surprise to a lot of us. Which just goes to show you’re never too old to learn something new!”

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