If you’ve grown up in Hermanus and the ocean is in your blood, in the air that you breathe; if you’ve swum in it, surfed its waves, fished and body boarded, and if you have an urge to give back to your community, then the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) is probably the answer. 

That was certainly the conclusion reached by André Barnard, who signed up as a trainee volunteer nine years ago with NSRI Station 17 in Hermanus. Last year he became Station Commander. With some trepidation, he stepped into the giant sea boots of the legendary Deon Langenhoven, who, as André puts it, had been there since Noah launched the Ark.

“From the very first day I enlisted as a trainee in 2011, I fell in love with it,” he remembers. “There are about 20 of us at the station at the moment, including seven trainees, and we are a tightly-knit family. Like a family, we work together, fight together and most of all, have huge amounts of fun together. This can be dangerous work, so it’s absolutely essential that you know and trust the person you’re working alongside. When you’ve experienced everything the ocean can throw at you, it’s difficult to describe the feeling to outsiders, but you know that members of your own team share it.” 

The NSRI is a unique organisation in that it is manned entirely by volunteers who are willing to risk their lives for others for no monetary gain. More than 50 years old, it was launched in Cape Town in 1967 as the South African In-Shore Rescue Service (SAISRS), soon changing its name to the National Sea Rescue Institute. Its first volunteers were Captain Bob Deacon and Ray Lant, and their boat, a 4.7m inflatable vessel named Snoopy was donated by the Society of Master Mariners. Today there are 41 stations along the South African coast and at inland dams.

NSRI Station 17 in Hermanus was established in 1978 and one of the things that André particularly admires about it is its non-discriminatory attitude. “A life is a life,” he emphasises. “We will answer a call to assist any person or animal in distress in the water and will throw everything we have into saving their lives. In fact, some of our most interesting activations have been to disentangle Southern Right whales from the ropes and fishing tackle that imprisoned and threatened to kill them.”

As he points out, there is also no differentiation in who they take on as volunteers, as long as they have the commitment and the heart for the job. “We have a shore-based team and we have sea-going crew and neither is more important than the other. We try to deploy people to particular tasks according to their skills and personalities. Certainly there are no barriers as far as race, gender and age are concerned. For instance, our Deputy Station Commander here is a woman, Danielle Fourie and our two longest-serving volunteers, Antonie de Klerk and Jean le Roux have been here since Moses parted the waters. Each one of them is valued as much as the newest, most energetic recruit.” 

The comprehensive NSRI certification programme, including high level first aid training, must be undertaken by every volunteer, no matter what their role and takes from six months to two years to complete. Until then, they are required to work alongside fully-qualified members. But training doesn’t end there. Twice a week every volunteer is required to attend an in-service training session at the Base or on the water. According to André, there is a relatively high attrition level at most NSRI stations, but Hermanus has had a very stable team for a number of years.

“This is a high-pressure and demanding commitment,” he explains. “Every call-out is a challenge: you have to be agile, to be able to think on your feet. Ocean conditions are never the same, the weather is never the same and the type of rescue is never the same. While the satisfaction in successfully completing a rescue is huge, after a time, some people feel they can no longer cope with the psychological strain of situations like body recoveries, for example. On the other hand, volunteers also tend to sign on when they are young and then their personal circumstances change – they marry, have a family, relocate – which is why we are always on the look-out for new members.”

At the moment they have three vessels at their disposal: a 4.2m, two-person Rigid Inflatable Boat, a 6.5m Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat which can accommodate 3 – 5 crew members, and a 10m deep-sea vessel which is manned by a crew of 4 – 6 people. They are hoping this year to acquire a larger ORC-class vessel. As a harbour-based station, they are also required to assist larger sea-going vessels, like trawlers and tankers. These tend to involve the medi-vaccing of injured or seriously ill seamen.

André underlines the importance of maintaining effective on-going relationships with other service providers, like ambulance operators and hospital emergency services. They also often work in tandem with their two neighbouring NSRI stations at Kleinmond and Agulhas, especially when it involves search and rescue operations or even sea exercises. “The thing is you never know when the next call-out is going to come, what the circumstances are and whether further help will be necessary, so it’s one for all and all for one in the NSRI.”

As the organisation puts it:  ‘Sea Rescue is in the business of hope. We do not manufacture or sell a product – we instead sell the idea that a group of people who offer up their time, funded by a group of people who offer up finances, can collectively help others at their most vulnerable.’ 

Readers are advised to make a note of the following call-out numbers for the three local NSRI stations: Hermanus: 082 990 5967; Kleinmond: 063 699 2765: Agulhas: 082 990 5952.

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