“Stranger things happen at sea” is the old saw that landlubbers use when things ashore go amiss. The operations team at the Coastguard Rescue Coordination Centre know just how true it can be.
Between January 1 and March 31 this year we handled 47,733 radio calls,” says Coastguard
communications coordinator, Mike Buddle. “That includes bar reports, trip reports and calls for assistance.” The busiest day was
February 28 when 1,964 boat skippers called the operations centre.
About 68% of the calls involved mechanical, electrical or fuel problems. Medical mishaps, falls, strokes or cardiac arrests also
account for a fair bit of the workload.
“But flat batteries and running out of fuel are two of our biggies,” says duty officer Hemi Manaena.
“We’re often called on to do medevacs from Waiheke Island – our boats are big and heavy enough to get out there and back
quickly and comfortably in bad weather. And we get many, many calls for missing people.”
Boats using many of the country’s bar harbours are monitored by the Coastguard team. “People can call us when they start their
bar crossing,” Hemi explains, “and if they don’t call and cancel the report when they’re safely over the bar, an alarm goes off at the
operations centre and we start trying to get in touch with them, their nominated contacts – or our local people.”
The alarm is set to sound at different times for the various bar crossings. It allows 30 minutes for transiting Manukau or 15 minutes for Raglan. Other bar harbours comply with appropriate time periods for their location.
“That’s why we encourage people to obtain and use a call sign,” says Hemi. “Our computer software has their history, log-in, description of the vessel and contact details filed under their call sign.” Operators also have access to software for monitoring the whereabouts of smart phones.
“Quite often we find that they’re at home and just forgot to call us.
“But I get the impression that more skippers are getting into boating education,” he says reflectively, “skippers seem to be much more aware of the limitations of their vessels and the weather, we’re logging more TRs (Trip Reports) and people are using call signs. There’s been a change of attitude from the old-style macho boating bloke. More people are wearing lifejackets too.”
But if things do come unstuck at sea, the Rescue Coordination Centre can track most of Coastguard’s 78 rescue vessels nationwide while they are involved in a callout. The operators also use Flight Following Systems to keep an eye on the Westpac Rescue Helicopter. Tabs are also kept on the Coastguard’s two Cessna search planes, which are based at Kerikeri and Ardmore.
For commercial vessels, the centre has access to AIS (Automatic Identification System) technology.
“If someone has an incident somewhere really remote we can use the AIS to see what commercial vessels are in the vicinity and able to render assistance.
“We’re the only establishment in the country that has all the SAR (Search and Rescue) ops in one building – a multi-agency response centre,” Hemi explains. “We have police, the harbourmaster’s office, rescue helicopters, surf lifesavers, etc, on call – just by pushing one alarm button.
“I love the job.” He stretches his legs, rolling back his chair. But his eyes keep scanning the flickering computer monitors arrayed around his desk. “It’s really varied – no two days are the same. burned in the resulting fireball, but we got him to hospital quick enough to get the treatment he needed. That felt really good.”
New volunteer operators start out by completing a two-day Maritime VHF Radio Operators certificate.
A duty officer and staff radio operator are on duty at all times and the other seats are taken by volunteers.
“At weekends and public holidays all seats are full,” Hemi explains. The seven full-time operators work 12-hour shifts (0600-1800 or 1800-0600) for two days and two nights then have four days off, so the centre is staffed 24/7. The full-timers are supplemented by a team of 40-50 volunteers.
Indoors the operators are all at work; monitoring calls from any one of the 63 units stationed around the coastline (and some lakes…) but outside the tinted glass frontage, a flotilla of pleasure boats power and sail over the green, wind and wake-wrinkled harbour towards the Hauraki Gulf.
Many of them will have tuned-in to the Coastguard Nowcast service. Metservice marine weather updates for forecast areas throughout the country are recorded and broadcast on nominated VHF channels to boating folk throughout the country.
Hemi is reluctant to tell tales on any boating folk who’ve had self-imposed problems at sea, but does dob in another operator. “It can be a laugh a minute. We had one new operator working here who saw something splash into the harbour out of the corner of her eye. ‘I just saw a big gannet dive,’ she said. “It turned out to be a helicopter crash – luckily we got ‘em and nobody was hurt… we got a good laugh out of it.”