Volunteer Marine Rescue

By: CHRIS WHITELAW, Photography by: CHRIS WHITELAW

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Water-based recreation is at an all-time high, with over 250,000 registered boats in Queensland alone - which means the demand for maritime safety and rescue services has never been greater.

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It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that the lion’s share of responsibility for such maritime safety and rescue services falls on private volunteer organisations, like the Volunteer Marine Rescue.

In Queensland, the VMR is an affiliation of 25 squadrons that operate along 2700km of coastline from Point Danger on the state’s southern border to the remote Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait. These squadrons provide front line assistance to boaters in distress on the water and are dedicated to the preservation of life at sea. Their highly professional rescue services are entirely voluntary and available to the boating community 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with vessels and crews prepared to go out in all weather conditions, day or night.

While mechanical, electrical and fuel breakdowns are the most common problems, many boaters each year are caught in life-threatening emergencies, such as capsizing, sinking or catching on fire. In critical situations, the actions of these volunteer first responders can mean the difference between life and death.

A common misconception about the VMR is that it has powers akin to the Water Police, Fisheries Inspectors and Customs. The truth is that it has no policing role whatever, but often works in conjunction with various state authorities and volunteer Coast Guard on search and rescue, medivac missions and the provision of first aid to accident victims. The VMR also maintains a 24-hour radio watch, in which trained operators monitor a range of  VHF channels for emergency distress calls and provide a routine voyage tracking service for vessels cruising in or through a squadron’s watch zone.

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Such is the general framework in which the VMR Association Queensland operates. For an idea about how the system plays out in real life, consider one of its busiest squadrons, VMR Hervey Bay.

VMRHB’s operations cover an area of some 1575 square nautical miles, taking in all of Hervey Bay, the Great Sandy Strait and the western shores of Fraser Island. When called upon to assist in search and rescue, the squadron has sent its vessels into the Coral Sea beyond the island. There are 10,000 registered boats on the Fraser Coast, making VMRHB’s workload the highest of any regional squadron in Queensland. Only the Moreton Bay and Gold Coast zones are busier.

The squadron has 112 volunteer members. They come from all walks of life and bring a wide range of skills and experience to the task of marine rescue in all its forms. But, young or old, they all have one thing in common: a strong desire to make a difference by serving the community of which they are part. The value of the volunteers’ contribution to water safety cannot be overstated. As Commodore John Smith puts it, "Our greatest asset is our people. Their mission is to save lives on the water. Their generosity of spirit, skill and courage are essential to that mission."

This dedication is reflected in their performance. During 2017, these volunteer men and women collectively logged more than 28,000 hours of active service – the equivalent of 3526 eight-hour days or 3.3 years of unpaid work. The squadron responded to more than 150 operational activations, including nine groundings, six sinking or sunk vessels, 10 search and rescue missions and 27 medical evacuations. In all, 275 people were delivered from perils on the water and returned to safety on the shore.

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VMRHB also provided safety support to the community at a number of aquatic events, including the Burrum Windfest windsurfing competition, the Fraser Coast Outrigger Trials, the Regional Dragon Boat Regatta, the Bay to Bay yacht race and the Offshore Powerboat races.

The squadron does all this with a fleet of vessels, each one suited to the demands of any given operation. They include two eight-metre NoosaCats, a 7.6-metre Swift rigid hull inflatable boat and a three-metre inflatable dubbed ‘Daffy Duck’. There are plans to upgrade the fleet by the replacement of one of the NoosaCats with a new purpose-built 12-metre jet-powered catamaran and, as soon as funding becomes available, construction can begin. And therein lies the rub.

As an independent not-for-profit organisation, the VMR receives very limited Government assistance, depending almost entirely on community support through membership subscriptions, sponsorships, donations and fundraising events to cover equipment, running costs and maintenance of rescue vessels. As operations manager Dave Marshman says, "It will take an awful lot of sausage sizzles to get us that new boat."

Check out the full feature in issue #498 of Trade-a-Boat magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration. 

 


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