Station Five at the entrance to Durban Harbour, equipped and ready to respond to any emergency, has the look of a fire station.
Only there isn’t a pole for waiting firefighters to slide down. Rather, the National Sea Rescue Institute’s (NSRI’s) emergency volunteers could be at their day jobs, in the traffic or going out to dinner when the alarm sounds.
“On a normal day it takes 15 to 20 minutes to get the crew here,” volunteer Station Commander Jonathan Kellerman explained to the Independent on Saturday.
“If there’s a bit of traffic, sometimes it takes 30 minutes. We may then be out on the water for an hour or two.”
The NSRI in Durban began in 1969 and was located in a shed next to the Paddle Ski Club on Vetch's Beach. The present station was opened in 2007, funded partly by Lotto money, said Kellerman.
In between rescue operations, training is an important part of keeping the station running smoothly.
“Twice-a-month the guys will train,” said Deputy Station Commander Lorenzo Taverna-Turisan.
“Each session is a different task we have to do in our task books. From boat landing, rope work, fire fighting, all the new navigation to radar and so on.”
Recently it involved jumping off a wall into the water and gathering in a movement called “help and huddle” before boarding a life raft.
“You have to do the ‘huddle’ if you have to abandon your vessel. It’s to keep everyone together. The bigger the object in the water, the easier it is to be seen. The more visible you are, it keeps morale up and everyone’s together and safe at the end of the day.”
Jumping off the harbour wall simulates jumping off a vessel that’s on fire.
“It’s also fun,” he stressed.
“It’s boring walking into water when you can jump into it. It also teaches the guys a bit of common sense: where you’ve got to cross your legs in case you get impaled; cross your arms to keep your life jacket close to your body so it doesn’t shoot up; look before you leap, not to look down but ahead otherwise face plant and it will hurt.”
The men and women taking part in the exercise are all volunteers, along with Taverna-Turisan, Kellerman and the rest of the station.
Taverna-Turisan, Kellerman have been in the game 18 years.
“I felt like joining the police reservists but my wife worked for a company that funded the NSRI, so I came down here and took a look around and never left,” said Taverna-Turisan.
“It’s a nice thing to be among people who do it just to help people. It’s also a nice break from work and the corporate environment. Everyone’s on the same level and from different walks of life.
“Not one person can run the station. Teamwork does it and that’s the nice thing about it.”
Rescue operations are not only from the sea.
Marita Minnie, who first volunteered for the NSRI in Richards Bay, pointed out that she had often been called out to rescues on terra firma, such as flash floods, once rescuing a two-year-old who clung to her as she crawled through thick bush.
“Informal settlements are often near rivers and suffer from flash floods. Kids go missing.”
During the last year, rescues have often involved getting people from ships with severe Covid symptoms.
“We have also had to increase our medical procedures to make sure that we keep our crew and the country safe as we bring those people in,” said Kellerman.
An incident well remembered was that of two fisherman who were stabbed by the swords of marlin during a fishing competition.
“I met one of them three months later when he came out of ICU (having recovered). It was a nice story to tell.”
Taverna-Turisan will never forget his first rescue, in the early 2000s.
“A couple on a yacht got into difficulty just before the Tugela (mouth). It was a 17-hour rescue trying to get them back.”
Yachts and ski boats in trouble keep the NSRI volunteers busy -- as do swimmers in trouble.
They are also always willing to assist with marine life too, their latest rescue of a creature in peril on the sea having been a turtle stuck in the shark nets off Addington Beach earlier this month. Coxswain Tim Edwards, who did the good deed, had been a volunteer since 2008.
Septuagenarian volunteer Malcolm Manion said when he joined 29 years ago, when the base was at Vetch’s, there was a smaller boat that launched from the beach and a larger one moored in the bay, near the present base.
“Back in the day we used to get three or four callouts every weekend. But then a lot more legislation came into boating and a lot more pressure was put on clubs to get involved in safety. There was a dramatic improvement and the number of rescues dropped.”
Since then, however, the NSRI has spread its wings from assisting only small boats and is now involved in activities such as lifesaving, he said.
Manion also said rescue operation back then took a lot longer.
“Twelve, 18, 24 hours. These days a six-hour rescue is a long one.”
He also said that today, more sophisticated training was required for more sophisticated equipment.
He recalled that although the larger boat on which he was based was usually slower than the smaller boat, it became faster in heavy weather when the surf was eight to 12 metres high.
“Once a trawler went down off Isipingo. A tug and a pilot boat turned back because of the sea conditions. Rescue swimmers on board a helicopter couldn’t see the trawler when it submerged twice. But we stayed out in the NSRI’s big boat all day.”
Manion also remembers being called out, about 15 years ago, to a brand new yacht that was on its way to Mauritius for a race.
“Its keel started to break away 90 nautical miles off Port Shepstone. We left Durban at 6pm on the Friday in rough sea conditions and entered Durban Harbour with him at 3am on the Monday.”
Today Manion does most of his NSRI volunteer work in the operations room, "passing on knowledge to the youngsters".
Station Five’s latest kid on the block is a 14m Offshore Rescue Craft that has a range of 300 nautical miles.
“Here to Richards Bay twice,” explained Kellerman.
“It’s an incredibly capable vessel. The bow is quite unique. It reduces the vertical acceleration when you travel through waves in the ocean. It’s a much more comfortable vessel for our crew to improve our endurance when we are responding to rescues.
“It can reach a speed of 28 knots but a good, comfortable cruising speed is 20- 22 knots.”
For the volunteers on board, that cruise may start half an hour after being stuck in traffic, at the office or getting ready to go out for dinner.
For further information or to make a donation, visit: https://www.nsri.org.za/
The Independent on Saturday