Precision Performance by Marine Police and Volunteers

As an (ex) Marine Rescue Skipper, we had some fun days…  but training is a serious business


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“He’s lost at sea and unwell?”

“The information we have,” the clipped, efficient tones state, “he is 55 years old, in a four metre tinnie.  He has diabetes and rang his wife from a mobile at 7.15 am to say he felt ill.  That’s four hours ago, the mobile’s battery has run out, he has no radio equipment on board, he has not returned to shore.”

With unemotional precision and no time for niceties the facts are disseminated to the awaiting crews.  The silence buffets between the groups and the adrenaline starts pumping as a few of us peek over the wall to the building seas that await us.  Many of us are scribbling down the information and start swaying from foot to foot in impatience of ‘getting out there and doing what we do’ – rescue!

Onboard briefing
Onboard briefing

A stiff north easterly is gathering strength and Mother Nature is threatening gale force northwesterly winds by lunchtime.  The sea is carrying little swell but the clouds and his windy mates are holding hands and pushing steep waves that are starting to cap with galloping white horses.  I suddenly realise with a dull thud in my mid-rift that I have left my seasick tablets behind.  Not often used, I still like to ensure I have them – just in case.  Glancing around the fifty tough, salt seasoned blokes that are now striding towards the wharf, I hope that as one of the four female counterparts, I am not the one to give the fish a good feed.

The assortment of crew from the Marine Police, Shoalhaven Marine Rescue (of which I am one), Royal Coastal Patrol, Coast Guard, Surf Life Saving, and Ariel Patrol peel off onto the four available boats.  Frenzied scribbling in note books persist in rhythm to purposeful strides.  Sun-block, hats, sunnies are the final touches to vivid orange outfits, smart blue garb and crisp nautical white; emblems, insignias and badges gloriously fighting for attention.

Constant radio communication and monitoring during the rescue
Constant radio communication and monitoring during the rescue

Sergeant Warwick Davidson, Master of Vanguard – the lead boat, gathers his crew, of which I am one for today.  We board the $2 million Police boat that is in its infancy at just six month old.  Carrying sleek lines, a proud bow and obvious power, I cannot help but notice admiring glances Vanguard attracts.  The crew gather in the spaceship like cockpit, which houses enough controls and doodads to keep every man and his button pressing habits happy for a few decades.

“Here are the life jackets, EPIRBS (Emergency Position Radio Indication Beacon), radios and life raft.”  Warwick reels off a short, accelerated briefing onboard.  We have little time for a full safety briefing there is an ill man at sea.  With roaring engines and handholds identified, he swiftly manoeuvres MV Vanguard out of the relative safety of Port Kembla Harbour into Neptune’s capricious hands.  We are in company with three other rescue vessels and the radios crackle into life; call signs confirmed, equipment checks and weather condition updates happen simultaneously as the electronic throttles are tenderly eased forward with appreciation of their power.  Vanguard grabs the white frothing bone at her bow and effortlessly launches into a body flattening speed.  As the neat procession of identifiable colours power out from the port, two whales cavort, splashing and twirling as if feeling the importance of the occasion, sensing the urgency.

Back at base, swift, skillful chart work with incorporated data is applied.  Scientific calculations of type and weight of the missing vessel and person is added into the workings, with the up to the minute sea conditions and weather reports.  A position is plotted as the most likely to locate the man in need.  Incorporating the time delay and error margin, a six-mile radius is marked out for the four rescue boats to search.  A grid search is organised, the four boats line up .25 miles apart, speed of eight knots; keeping together as if performing an odd synchronised boat dance in the buffeting ocean.  The clash of sun against sea is blinding, the waves relentlessly pound against the steel hull, salt spray is both irritating and relieving, its ice tingling splash easing the rising heat.

“Boat number One, reduce your speed slightly, boat number Two turn to port a touch” the slight adjustment of the boats positioning is co-ordinated on the invisible grid.  This type of alteration is usually constant, but today, as if sensing the importance of the job, the boats are aligned perfectly.  Despite the perpetual battering of the elements that are out of our control, the Masters do a formidable job in maintaining their course and configuration within the team.  I glance occasionally at the radio, so quiet, when it is so important, I cannot help but wonder if it precipitates a calamity . . . . . . .

Shoalhaven Marine Rescue boats
Shoalhaven Marine Rescue boats

With plenty of crew onboard, we swap ‘look out’ positions regularly, the fly bridge more popular with some, the sheltered cockpit preferred by others.  Up at 20 feet, on comfortable chairs big enough to engulf me, I find the search area easier to scan.  The wind is strengthening and backing to the north west, the weather is steadily following the predictions.

“Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two – turn” the lead Police boat instructs the other boats via radio.  In unison, the four vessels that are stretched over two nautical miles turn 90 degrees, they move .25 miles further east and again turn 90 degrees to complete the next sweep within the grid.  The co-ordinated boat ballet scores an accomplished ten in my head, but that maybe just another way for me to opt out of reality for a while.  Another few turns are completed, and the minutes tick by into an hour, then another.  The wind is up to 20 knots with the waves matching that strength.  The lack of recreational vessels, in the area, confirm the uncomfortable conditions, that are set to worsen.

SARCC (Search and Rescue Co-Ordination Centre) are gathering data and preparing to extend the search area for hours to come, in case our ‘rescuee’ is not spotted.  The excitement caused by pumping adrenaline and the unknown has calmed, a silence of anticipation has a backing thrum of the powerful engines.  As tiredness starts nibbling at our limbs the radio jumps into life; “This is boat number Three, we have spotted the vessel on our starboard and are approaching now.  Currently there are no signs of any persons.”  Warwick instructs the rest of the boats to maintain their tracks; SARCC start calculating a possible latitude and longitude position for a person hidden in Davy Jones’ locker.  The currents and wind propel all items in the water, the speed with which the boat might be affected, may not be the same as a man in the water.

Noel on another rescue mission
Noel on another rescue mission

Utilising years of prior research and world’s best practice, trained heads compute with embedded diligence.  Anthony Hill, Senior Constable and controller of SARCC, heads up a highly trained and exceptional team.  There is no time to loose, hyperthermia is the biggest problem – it is a speedy killer.

As instructions are issued the radio falls back to inertia, but for just a few seconds.  “This is boat number Two, we have the man we’ve been looking for, confirmation we have found one person, he is alive and well.”  A few whoops are heard and a couple of people clap.  Our Search and Rescue exercise today has been a complete success, the team has won the contest against the elements.

As the adrenaline fades into exhaustion we continue our grid search.  Until the rescuee or his wife has confirmed, beyond any doubt, that he was on the only person out there, we continue searching.  Once this is confirmed, we continue searching – there maybe debris to retrieve – revealing the dull side of rescues, the stuff that has to be done and is part of the job.  However, it is not so dull today, dolphins flip alongside and the whales are still close by.

The highlight is the teamwork.  All the volunteer groups are accountable to the Police.  The incredible amount of people who give up their time to help others is somewhat humbling.  The Police give up their time to train the volunteers such as me.  With one day in the classroom to understand the science used to create a search area and what is/is not expected of us all; then a day on the water, a live situation – a real boat to retrieve and a ‘guy’.  Okay, our ‘rescuee’ was a little water logged, what with his material skin and buoy like head – but he is safe.  The system works, the team is professionally trained.

A great day out with a great team - training
A great day out with a great team – training

The de-brief is interspersed with popping of cold canned drinks, rubbing weary eyes and a few yawns.  A heady mix of fatigue, relief and tangible excitement stirs through the tables.  Dawn starts on two days, reams of new information absorbed and a ‘real as you get’ search has taken its toll.  Each master comments on the process and achievement and the crews have their say too.  The best part, (aside from the hot chook during the de-briefing), was the positive quotes from the Police instructors.  “First class team work” and “the people of Illawarra should be very confident out on the water” and “outstanding”.

The highlight for me? – well of course, a successful rescue, whether practice or reality, is always a buzz – but to feel Vanguard power herself with a mighty force interlaced with fine grace through two metre waves turned back my clock to teenage years.  This boat is a triumph in every respect.  I had a good few whoops of delight, not only for the safe return of the mannequin, but the thrill and opportunity of riding this mighty vessel, that is here and well equipped with fine electronics and extraordinary crew, to save lives and protect Australian waters.

Afloat magazine article
Afloat magazine article

Marine Police Duties

The Marine Area Command contains the following main sections:

  1. Divers
  • Perform specific underwater search, recovery & investigative operations
  • Provide underwater still & video evidence to assist in the investigation of crime & coronial inquests.
  • Provide underwater service in support of emergency operations.
  • Provide underwater security services.
  • Provide topographical evidence through the use of side scan sonar.
  • Provide technical investigation of diving equipment worn by deceased.
  • Provide in-water support in crowd control situations.
  1. Marine Operational Support Team (M.O.S.T)
  • Boarding vessels at sea and enclosed waters.
  • Boarding Australian registered vessels (commercial and recreational)
  • Detection of offences (safety and criminal)
  • Security of Ports
  • Marine Law enforcement for open and sheltered waters.
  • Police Law enforcements.
  • Marine crowd control
  • I.P. escorts
  • Defence department escorts
  1. Search and Rescue

The NSW Police has a full time State Marine Search and Rescue/Emergency Management Co-Coordinator who is the central point of contact for all marine incidents within the State.

Under an agreement between the Federal Government and the States, Search and Rescue (SAR) of all vessels in Port, pleasure craft and fishing vessels at sea is the responsibility of the respective State police.

A comprehensive list of State Rescue Board (SRB) accredited resources is maintained at MAC (Marine Area of Command) Search and Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (SARCC).  Theses include Volunteer organisations such as the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol, Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association, the Volunteer Rescue Association, Surf Life Savers and Aerial Patrol.

  1. Marine Investigators have specialist knowledge in marine offences such as black-marketing, poaching, vessel re-birthing, vessel identification, waterborne deaths, fisheries matters, port security, illegal immigration, quarantine and marine based prostitution.

For more information: http://www.police.nsw.gov.au

The Volunteer organisations are self-funded and staffed by trained seamen (and woman) who generously give up their time.  In the coming weeks we will feature these organisations, who these people are, what they do and how they put their lives on the line for us.

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