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There is a lot more to the NSRI’s services than water sport and rip current rescues. They also play a vital role in at-sea medical evacuations.

Did you know that the majority of at-sea medical evacuations in South Africa are carried out by the NSRI – by highly skilled volunteers who aren’t paid a cent for their services?

This is quite an extraordinary feat, considering that medical evacuations – or ‘medevacs’ – are one of the most dangerous types of rescue operation.

Large cargo or cruise ships are not unlike drifting icebergs: it takes incredible skill to manoeuvre a comparatively small rescue craft around one. The two vessels move up and down at different rates due to the swell action on both vessels.

In order to pull up alongside, and to lower a potentially incapacitated person who may be in critical condition down the side of the vessel in a stable manner, requires exceptional high-angle rescue skills. To complicate matters, many medevacs occur at night, potentially in poor weather conditions, which adds to the risk.

“The Durban and Port Elizabeth stations usually get more medevac callouts than us because they’re on busier shipping lanes,” says Station 19 duty coxswain Norman Rautenbach.

“We are extremely fortunate to have a professional medic on our crew … If we have to take a medic out with us who isn’t used to being on boats, there is always a chance they might be overwhelmed by the scale of the operation, or get seasick, or both.”

Thankfully, the Station 19 crew have Richard Schouten on board, who is also a District Lecturer at the College of Emergency Care at the Department of Health in KwaZulu-Natal.

Even though medevacs are fairly routine for NSRI stations positioned along busy shipping routes, it was still highly unusual for Station 19 to conduct not two, not three, but four medical evacuations in the space of one month – two of them from the same vessel.

On Saturday, 2 March, Richards Bay duty crew were activated following reports from MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) of a medical emergency involving a local adult female onboard cruise liner MSC Splendida, who was suffering from a heart condition. “The ship's doctor was extremely capable, and the high standard of treatment that her patient received ensured that she was ready to go,” says Station commander Mike Patterson.

No sooner had the Richards Bay crew successfully transferred the woman and her husband into the care of Netcare911 medics when another call came in, this time for a crew member aboard a bulk carrier motor vessel who’d had his hand crushed in an accident.

“The adult Filipino crewman was transferred onto our rescue craft, and he was brought to the base where a ship’s agent transported him to a doctor for medical treatment,” says Norman.

Only a few days later, on 5 March, the MSC Splendida had barely departed from Durban harbour to continue on her voyage when a passenger on board – as coincidence and poor luck would have it – badly injured his hand in an accident.

“It appears that the vessel had departed Durban earlier, heading towards Mozambique, and had reached the vicinity of the Tugela River Mouth when the accident occurred,” says Norman. Following communications facilitated by MRCC between the ship's doctor and the WC Government Health EMS duty doctor, it was agreed that transport to the hospital as soon as possible was recommended.

Richards Bay rescue craft Ocean Guardian was launched and rendezvoused with the vessel seven nautical miles off-shore of the Port of Richards Bay in two-to-three-meter swells and a gusting 40-knot wind. In a deft feat of coordination, the cruise ship manoeuvred to provide a lee from the wind for access to the Port hatch, and the passenger was successfully taken into the care of medics.

Later that same month, on 27 March, a call came in for the medical evacuation of an Egyptian crewman from a large motor vessel approaching Richards Bay, and the crew rendezvoused with the vessel five nautical miles off-shore. An NSRI MEX (Maritime Extrication) crewman and Richard Schouten were transferred onboard where the patient, in the care of the ship’s medical crew, was assessed and secured into a Stokes basket stretcher.

As is often the case with medevacs, the man did not speak English. Thankfully, a local representative of Mission to Seafarers, Chaplain Mark Classen and his wife, who speaks Arabic, assisted the patient with communications and logistics, much to the delight of the patient, to establish contact with the patient’s family members abroad.

Mission to Seafarers, an international NPO with representatives in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Saldanha Bay, Durban and Richards Bay, is an extraordinary organisation that supports the men and women working at sea (on ships that transport more than 90% of our exports and imports), whether due to loneliness or mental health issues.

As you can see, the NSRI offers much more than just water sports and rip current rescues. They also play a vital role in at-sea medical evacuations, providing crucial assistance to crew members in need regardless of language barriers. Through partnerships with organisations like Mission to Seafarers, they extend their reach to support those working at sea, supporting their well-being and safety beyond the shoreline.

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