Gqeberha's Ordinary heroes, who wear wetsuits not capes
Wednesday, 12th May 2021
Article by Marguerite Smit
Photos by Dirk Erasmus photography
“It wasn’t the reward or recognition that mattered. It was your depth of commitment, your quality of service, the product of your devotion”. – Scott O’Grady
Nelson Mandela Bay must have one of the most beautiful and accessible coastlines in the world. We truly have the Goldilocks “just right” conditions for swimming and sea sports and our ocean sees many people getting their Vitamin Sea on a daily basis. As with most things in life, swimming in the sea comes with a risk and while many of our beaches don’t have rip-tide conditions, some do, and regularly people get into situations beyond their capabilities.
And so cometh the hour cometh the awesome team. The Bay is home to a remarkable group of people who volunteer their time tirelessly 365-days of the year to ensure we keep the risk of entering the sea to the minimum. That team is Coastal Water Rescue (CWR) and this bunch of ordinary heroes, who wear wetsuits not capes, form a key part of the metro’s broader coastal emergency preparedness.
It all got started many moons ago when the Metro’s lack of funding and poor capabilities of their water rescue squads became apparent. The Summerstrand Lifesaving Club took the initiative and answered the call. Recognizing the need for a rapid response emergency and rescue team – we are after all known as the Watersport Capital of South Africa – and so, in 1982 Surf Rescue was born. Gordon Smart, a well-known name in Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, was one of the original founders, spending many years contributing his swimming and life-saving skills to the rescue organization. Gordon was also a South African Police Reservist, which helped in forming good relationships with the Metro’s police, allowing the squad to respond to an emergency faster. Sadly, Gordon succumbed to the COVID-19 virus last year. His contributions remain highly recognized, and he is fondly missed by all who knew him.
By 2006 the team realized their duties included more than just surf-rescue, responding as they were to any water-based emergency in Nelson Mandela Bay. It was time for a rebrand, picking a name that better depicted what they did, and so Coastal Water Rescue was born. In 2008, Kim Barley brought his paramedic skills to Coastal Water Rescue in the role of Medical Officer. Serving as both Assistant Coordinator and Full Coordinator position along the way, Kim is still a medical officer at CWR and continues to provide his skills to the squad on rescues. He remains an integral part of CPR training, which members need to renew every two years. Dirk Erasmus currently serves Operations Manager and has done so for years and Suzie du Plessis head’s up the public relations side. It seems, once a crew member, always a crew member.
CWR responds to any water-related incidents and emergencies such as drownings in the sea, rivers, dams and swimming pools. It helps out when boats flip; with flooding; helping fishermen get out of trouble (with the exception of verifying catch sizes) and occasionally assists with land searches if needed by the police or other emergency organisations.
Members consist of non-paid volunteers (paid in angel shares instead) and are on stand-by 24/7, 365 days a year. At any given time, there are at least 8-10 members who will be able to respond and assist in an emergency. It’s a group of people from all walks of life: nurses, paramedics, layman, students, athletes, guides, IT specialists and teachers - the list is long. But the team shares one common goal: a passion for saving the Bay’s citizens from drowning. Unfortunately there are times when they are unable to do so, and in that instance they assist in body recovery to bring closure to families that lose loved-ones in drowning incidents.
Since the rebranding, through sponsorship, funding and the increase in volunteers CWR continues in close partnership with other emergency services in and around the Bay. To this end, it’s a member of the Metro’s Emergency Services Coordinating Committee and a member of the water emergency sub-committee (WERC).
All water-related incidents are electronically distributed to all the WERC members; and the CWR squad is alerted via SMS alerts that there is an emergency. The team then jumps into action, dropping whatever it is they are busy with, day or night or in the middle of Christmas lunch or Easter Egg hunting, and get to the scene as quickly as possible. At times the squad is not activated, but rather placed on standby when notice of a possible emergency is received. It is not a stand-alone unit that functions in isolation, but is rather a unit that supports and assists all other emergency services in Nelson Mandela Bay, often working hand in hand with National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI).
As a non-profit organisation, CWR always has space for more volunteers. Volunteers live all over Nelson Mandela Bay, which gives them the advantage of being able to respond to rescues very quickly along the Bay’s extensive coastline and numerous rivers.
If you’re interested in volunteering with them, provided that you are water competent and ideally if you have a specific skill to bring to the team, this is a great crew to join. Volunteers range in activity, and do not only consist of swimmers, medics, boat crew, SAPS Reservists and qualified first-aid members; but they also take on volunteers who can help out with our admin, communication and even our PR.
The majority of the squad consists of CWR’s core function – rescue swimmers. All potential rescue swimmers will need to pass a compulsory fitness and water competency test (as in they must be able to swim with confidence in the sea); and all new members will be on a 3-month probation when first joining CRW. It would also be recommended to be in possession of a lifesaving award (LSA) if you’re looking at becoming a rescue swimmer. It is possible to join and build up your confidence through the training programme before participating in rescues.
Applicants must be:
- Over 18 years old.
- Strong swimmers (if applying to do rescues).
- Passionate about saving lives and responding to emergencies.
- Team players – cowboys drown, this is important for all members in all positions at CWR.
If you believe you possess these qualities and you meet the requirements of volunteering with CWR, send your CV to firstname.lastname@example.org and someone will get back to you.
For any volunteer unit, fundraising is an essential a part of life. As they use volunteer members and rescue swimmers, they are entirely reliant on donations and sponsorships to keep the squad running. Their operational costs are extremely low; and the majority of funding is used for equipment purchases to ensure that their rescue swimmers and support crew have the necessary equipment to ensure their own safety and so they can function optimally.
If you, or your organisation, would be able to assist with a monthly donation, please get in touch with them.
For ad-hoc donations the banking details for Coastal Water Rescue is as follows:
Account Holder: EC Coastal Water
Investec Private Bank
Account number: 50009 571 898
Branch code: 580105
“Maybe I couldn’t help everyone survive, but I could, at least, save this one life.”
― Tiana Warner
A motto the Coastal Water Rescue team live by. So if you see them in their yellow and blue on a beach, at a river or racing to a scene, know that whomever is in trouble, they are in the best possible hands. This squad is there to bring them home – wetsuits not capes!