For generations children growing up along the Whale Coast have carried the sight, sound and scent of the sea in their hearts. One might even say that as descendants of a long line of fisherfolk, a powerful connection with the ocean is built into their DNA.

The TS Birkenhead sea scout corps on parade in their smart dress uniforms. Noel Dreyer is on the left and Irvine Esau on the right. PHOTO: Hedda Mittner

Born and brought up in Hawston, Noel Dreyer was just such a child. He could not imagine a life away from the sea, but, because the fishing industry had already begun to decline by the time he was a teenager, he took a different route and joined the South African Navy, no easy thing to do during the apartheid era.

It was the right decision to make. After 38 years at sea, he retired a couple of years back as a Warrant Officer First Class. Not once did he regret the choice he made. It gave him the opportunity to grow as a person and see the world whilst maintaining his connection with the sea. As a weapons technician on South African frigates, he even attended courses in Germany and France.

However, it was not all plain sailing. He was on board the frigate SAS Paul Kruger when it went down during a naval exercise off Cape Point in February 1982, with the loss of 16 crew members. Noel was amongst the 177 sailors who miraculously survived. That day the crew lived up to the ship’s motto, Out of the Storm came Courage.

After a fulfilling career, when the time came to retire from the Navy, the question was, what now? For Noel, the answer was not difficult. First, he would return to his home town of Hawston, and second, he would try to share his passion for the sea and the Navy with the youngsters there. With youth unemployment as high it was, he wanted to give them the skills and the opportunity to follow in his footsteps.

Aware of the prevalent drug and gang culture in the community, he also wanted to give them something that was both fun and constructive to do with their free time. And so the Hawston Cadet Corps was established. The children did a lot of drilling and marching and Noel made sure they were enjoying themselves and at the same time, getting fit. “These kids want to feel they belong,” he comments, “and they love it when you praise them for a job well done.” They were also very proud of being invited to parade at events like the Hermanus Whale Festival and the Night of a Thousand Drawings.

The corps pulled out all the stops during the Night of a Thousand Drawings in December last year. PHOTO: Taylum Meyer

But a year ago, Noel achieved his ultimate goal which was to register the group as a SA Sea Scouts base, one of only 14 in the country. They are known as TS (Training Ship) Birkenhead after the British frigate that was wrecked off Danger Point in February 1852. “You can ask any of the members here,” says Noel, indicating his neat squad on parade,” and they will be able to tell you the story of the Birkenhead; they are very proud of the name.”

He now has 45 members from Hawston and 12 from Mount Pleasant; this year they will be recruiting youngsters from Zwelihle as well. Pupils, both boys and girls, from Grade 6 to matric are eligible to join, but they also have a couple of littlies (Grade 2s) who were part of the Cadet Corps and are now looked upon as the base’s mascots. “The interesting thing about our members is that although they are more or less 50/50 boys and girls, it’s the girls who are the hardest working and most enthusiastic,” says Noel. His assistant, Irvine Esau nods in agreement.

Apart from practical sessions over weekends, the group meet two afternoons a week to make their way through a series of workbooks, with tests at the end of each. They are able to progress through the ranks from Seaman to Able Seaman, Leading Seaman, Petty Officer and Chief Petty Officer, earning badges as they acquire competencies which include personal hygiene, values, safety and survival skills, rope work, flags, environmental conservation and many others. Naturally, they must all be able to swim. From the rank of Able Seaman they can choose one of five categories in which to specialise: First Aid, Communications, Catering, Engineering and Seamanship.

Of course, the greatest thrill is to go on adventures off base. Last year they visited Simonstown – seeing some of the big ships at anchor in the docks and visiting the Naval Museum was beyond exciting. Then, during the December holidays they took part in a weekend camp at the Hoek van de Berg Nature Reserve owned by the Raimondo family, an exercise to be repeated during the upcoming Easter holidays. Although the Nature Reserve is right next door to Hawston, the experience couldn’t be more different from that of their daily lives.

“These kids are becoming role models in their communities,” comments Noel. “Their level of self-discipline, commitment and focus is having a major impact on their school work, too. Now we have received a wonderful donation from the Raimondo Trust to buy music instruments, so the youngsters are very excited about starting a band. After they have successfully completed the full Sea Scout programme, they are almost 100% sure of getting a place in the Navy post-matric if they want it.”

Grateful as they are to be allowed to use the grounds of Hawston Primary for drilling, the fly in the ointment for this pioneering group is that, although they have been given a dinghy by SA Sea Scouts, the TS Birkenhead doesn’t have a sea base from which to operate. How do you teach seamanship when you don’t have access to the sea?

Since the present occupants’ lease of the Fisherhaven Yacht Club is about to expire, Noel applied to the Overstrand Municipality for the use of the premises, which come complete with flag poles, mooring and the other facilities they would need, but they were told to put in a tender. Unfortunately, they cannot afford the tender fees. As it is, on 9 May when they have their main annual parade, they will have to pay R3 000 for the use of the facilities for just one day.

It seems a pity that such a worthwhile project, started by an enthusiastic individual for the benefit of the disadvantaged children in his community should not receive tangible support from the local authority.

For more information Noel can be contacted on 073 161 8347.

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