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Paul Tuzson visits a Victorian division of the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard and inspects its Stabicraft 859 Supercab.


We're always happy to promote a good cause and the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard is an excellent one, as anyone who's been rescued by it will agree. In fact, people often join after receiving assistance from the Coast Guard. This is because even though everyone has seen the yellow boats, and knows the Coast Guard exists, it can take a bit of a scare on the water to bring the activities of this dedicated group of volunteers into focus.

Structurally, the organisation consists of 11 squadrons which are in turn comprised of 69 flotillas spread from Queensland to South Australia, including Tasmania. We went and spoke with commodore David Collins who is in charge of Victoria.

As a boat testing magazine we were very interested to find out about the organisation's boating preferences. However, Collins was adamant that the Coast Guard not be seen to favour any particular brand of boat. "We like all our boats", he said.

Many types are in service with the various flotillas, but one thing they all have in common is the ability to deal with fairly severe weather. This is essential so there are virtually no weather conditions that will prevent crews from responding to an emergency call.

General safety patrols are also a regular part of Coast Guard activity, but once seas start reaching a couple of metres and winds get up to 25 knots or more, general patrol duties become a bit difficult and there isn't a lot of point in going out anyway because there aren't many boats on the water in those conditions. Sometimes, however, they will still go out in extremely rough weather for training purposes.




We went and visited the Mornington Peninsula's Safety Beach Flotilla which uses a Stabicraft 859 Supercab. Regular readers might remember the review we did on the 829 SC Weekender some time ago. The 859 is about the same length but has a wider beam. Basically, it's an impressively stable platform that deals with rough water much more easily than a lot of boats.

According to some tastes, the pragmatic styling of Stabicraft creates a somewhat ungainly appearance. If that happens to be your opinion, any time spent in the boat in challenging conditions will soon change your mind. Further, if you get into trouble at the southern end of Port Phillip Bay and you see the big yellow version shown hereabouts bearing down, rest assured, it will be the best looking boat you've ever seen. Of course, that can be said for any Coast Guard boat anywhere.

Actually, despite the fact that the Coast Guard is a totally unified organisation, there is friendly rivalry between flotillas. Members of each will tell you that neighbouring flotillas are doing a fantastic job. However, there's always a tongue in cheek suggestion that the others fall just a touch short of the flotilla doing the talking. It's the same with their boats, "Fantastic boat you've got there. It's almost as good as ours".

It's quite a lot like the pride seen in the crews of individual naval ships, which is not surprising. The uniforms have the same crispness about them. However, the more important similarity is that the Coast Guard is built around a firm core of training and the resultant competency shines through.

Normally, we at TrailerBoat usually get to drive the boats on which we find ourselves. Not so here. Anyone who takes the helm of a Coast Guard boat is either under instruction from a seasoned, extremely well-qualified member or has such qualifications him/herself.

Fortunately, we'd already had an extensive steer of the Stabicraft 829 Supercab back when we reviewed it, so the stable characteristics and ease of handling are well known to us. In fact, even though it's a big vessel it's so easy to handle that people have been known to acquire the model as a first boat.

Collins said of the Guard's 859: "Coming off the back of a wave, it's a much softer drop."

Of course, thorough training helps improve the ride of any boat. The characteristics of the Stabicraft, coupled with the competence drilled into the crews, inspires a feeling of safety and security that's only been surpassed, in my experience, aboard naval ships. Mind you, actually getting shot at on a naval ship might alter the feeling of safety just a little.





Once, the only way to get Coast Guard training was to join up. Now, however, the training programme is being opened to the public. Courses in boat licensing, radio licensing, small boat handling, GPS, coastal navigation and radar are on offer. Some of the content involves getting out in the boats for practical application of the subject matter covered. Fees are charged for the courses, but keep in mind that any money you pay to the organisation is money well spent. The government does give some money to the Coast Guard in the form of grants, but the balance has to be acquired through fund raising.

Back in the beginning, in 1960, Coast Guard boats were all privately owned by members. These days, some privately-owned vessels are still utilised occasionally, but virtually all flotillas use dedicated boats wholly owned by the organisation.

So, what's the difference between a Coast Guard boat and a privately-owned version of the same boat? The 859 seen hereabouts compared with the 829 we tested is a good example. Clearly, the ample areas available for storage are about the same in both models. It's what's in them that's the difference.

Coast Guard boats carry an example of almost every bit of safety equipment available. Collins insists that all items must be stowed securely on every boat of which he has command, so adequate storage is essential. It would, after all, be ironic to be injured by a piece of loose safety equipment.

It's not just the utilisation of standard features that differentiate the civilian and Coast Guard versions of the Stabicraft, or other boats in other flotillas. Stabicraft customised certain details of the boat to meet the special needs of the Coast Guard. For instance, getting people out of the water through the starboard side swing-up gate is much easier than getting them up past the freeboard and over the gunnels, and safer than getting them aboard via the swim platforms at the rear next to the engines.




A lot of Coast Guard activity occurs in close contact with other boats. In such situations, damage to either vessel is always a concern so as you can see in the photos hereabouts, Coast Guard boats have rubber straking applied right around the freeboard section of the hull. However, the design of the standard boat made it difficult to apply the rubber. This is because the Stabicraft is surrounded by a composite pontoon that makes the boat virtually unsinkable. This made it necessary to fabricate built-up sections to which the rubber could be attached. In turn, this has made the gunnels a bit wider than standard. In other boats, similar buoyancy is achieved by filling cavities with foam but this takes up valuable storage space. The Stabicraft design achieves impressive buoyancy without that sacrifice.

Another modification specified by the Coast Guard was for higher, much more heavily reinforced bowrails plus super-strong aluminium bollards firmly welded into the structure of the boat. These are needed for towing stranded boats, which is a large part of the work done by the Coast Guard.

Despite the buoyancy built into the boat, survey requirements covering boats that work outside Port Phillip Heads still called for a liferaft on this boat, which was mounted on the roof. All these modifications have increased the weight of the boat by about 600kg. Consequently, this Coast Guard version of the 859 Supercab calls for 450hp which is still within the maximum specified for this vessel.

Though the big twin Hondas are economical, it still takes quite a bit of fuel to push a boat of this size through the water. An important Coast Guard requirement for the boat is that it be able to maintain 25 knots for 10 hours non-stop. The standard 750lt fuel tank allows this. So, the boat can patrol around the bay for quite a long time which is ideal because, although it's classified as enclosed water, it has around 270km of coastline and covers close to 1950km². Of course, it's serviced by more than just the one flotilla, but even so, it can be extremely difficult to find someone in such a broad expanse of water.





While Coast Guard crews certainly do perform daring rescues from time to time most 'jobs' consist of helping broken-down vessels. Collins says they see a spike in the number of calls for assistance each year when the good weather resumes. This is because people take their boats out for the first time without servicing them. Some faults are undetectable but most are down to simple lack of maintenance.

Says Collins: "It's not like a broken-down car where you can stand around for a couple of hours waiting for an auto club van. On the water, particularly in a tide, it's much more dangerous."

Flotilla commander-Safety Beach, Cliff Lees, added that sometimes people try to fish out at the heads by using their motors to maintain position. However, when their engines fail they can find themselves in difficulties quite quickly, and the heads are notorious for tides and changing conditions. It's not hard to imagine why. Given the size of the bay there's a lot of water trying to get in and out every day through a gap that's only about 3km wide with a wildly uneven seabed. All Coast Guard skippers are qualified to navigate the heads, or Rip as the slightly wider area is known.

Another difference between the 859 seen here and the 829 we tested is the wider beam of 2.95m compared with 2.48m. This makes what was already a stable boat even more so with obvious benefits for Coast Guard operations. Interestingly, on the last day we were out in the boat about a 100kg of extra anchor chain had been added to the front of the boat and the crew seemed to think it created an even better ride.

While some things about the Coast Guard version of the Stabicraft are different to the one we tested, others are the same, although sometimes they're used a bit differently.

Instrumentation is a case in point. Certain things like the Honda instrument set for the engines is used much like any normal boat owner would use it. However, the Raymarine multifunction display is a different matter. Why for instance, would the Coast Guard need a fishfinder? Are they getting up to something they're not telling us? No, it's just for depth readings so that they don't run aground. The boat draws 1.4m and they don't get much choice about where other boats get into trouble.

Still, everyone uses a fishfinder to check depth, so what's the difference? Lees explained that often people don't know where they are. They get on the radio and try to explain, but it can all get a bit difficult. But some areas of the bay are quite distinct and crews can sometimes get an idea of where a distressed boat might be according to the depth they're in.




Fortunately, more and more boats are equipped with GPS and being able to enter exact coordinates to get to a vessel in trouble is clearly a tremendous advantage. Yet many people who have a GPS system still don't know how to use it properly. Of course, radar information is the other vital data that ends up on the screen.

Lees explained that some people don't think radar is necessary on the bay because you can always see the coast. But this isn't true. Often, surprise weather conditions that limit visibility can change that. Then, of course, there's night boating and there are quite a few things to hit in the bay, including cargo ships - and they hurt. Also, some amateur fishermen turn off their lights to avoid flattening their batteries.

As we've said before, everyone should have radar. The skipper who took us out said he even used it to find the entrance to the marina one afternoon after severe weather sprang up and limited visibility. More recently, smoke from the bushfires obscured any view of the shore from more than a couple of nautical miles.

On the matter of fires, the Coast Guard has a close working relationship with the CFA (Country Fire Authority) and other organisations including the police, ambulance service, and others. Occasionally the various groups will come together for a major training exercise like the one shown in the shots. These events are designed to sharpen the skills of everyone involved and harmonise the working relationships between the participants. Of course, there's always a BBQ after the work, and social activity is another side of joining the Coast Guard. The other thing to consider is that not everyone in the Coast Guard works as crew on the boats. From our point of view, as boating enthusiasts, it's hard to imagine why someone wouldn't, but there are people who prefer to do other things. They're also most welcome as members.




Both Collins and Lees were keen to emphasise that the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard doesn't have any law enforcement role, despite it's close working relationship with the water police. When people see the yellow boats approaching it's to help, not to hassle. And the uniforms represent unity rather than authority. You'll find a diverse range of people in the Coast Guard. From plumbers to police and drivers to doctors, members are judged on common training and teamwork. Although all members have to do some training it's really up to the individual to decide how far to take things.

The Safety Beach flotilla is extremely fortunate in that it has a berth in the prestigious Martha Cove Harbour marina complex alongside some pretty expensive boats. Under an arrangement suggested by the local council, the flotilla shares its headquarters with the Safety Beach Yacht Squadron and both organisations benefited from involvement with the developers of Martha Cove Harbour. Not all flotillas are fortunate enough to have such a development happen on their doorstep, but the organisation is always on the lookout for ways to integrate its activities with local development and community activities in general to the benefit of all involved.

If you decide to get involved in the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard in your area, first and foremost, you'll enjoy yourself. Lees had a lifelong career in the merchant navy and tells stories of dodging icebergs and crashing through 50-foot waves in the North Atlantic on freighters in the 10,000-ton range. That's big enough to be a substantial ship, but small enough to feel the conditions more than you would on a modern container ship. Saltwater in the veins, so to speak. Now that he's settled down with a family, Lees finds that the on-water activities associated with membership in the Coast Guard satisfies his need for salt spray in the face. If a not-so-old seadog like Lees is satisfied, you will be too.

If you think that the Coast Guard might be the part-time life for you, go to and follow the screens to recruitment.




Type: Monohull
Material: Marine grade aluminium: 6mm hull; 4mm tube
Length: 8.95m
Beam:  2.95m
Deadrise: 20°
Rec. HP: 350
Rec. max. HP: 450
Weight: 2400kg (dry); 3950kg (BMT)
People: 12
Fuel: 750lt



Phone: MY Marine (03) 5987 0900

First published in TrailerBoat #245

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