Truly sphincter-tightening conditions.
Marine Rescue members routinely put their lives on the line to assist people in need, often in life-threatening conditions.
A fact I was reminded of during a chat with Port Stephens deputy unit commander Neil Hansford this week as he put out a call for more volunteers.
Last month, 21 RMPS members were recognised for a series of remarkable rescues conducted in abominable weather during the January 2016 east coast low.
The only Marine Rescue NSW Medal of Valour ever awarded – the highest recognition of bravery the organisation can bestow – went to Laurie Nolan for saving two crewmates that dire night.
A brief recount of what went down gives an insight into the kind of ticker displayed.
Five Mayday calls were broadcast on January 6 and 7 last year.
A number of yachts travelling through the area were caught in the maelstrom, with the wild conditions claiming the life of sailor Mal Lennon, washed overboard from Amante off Broughton Island as the vessel returned south from the Pittwater to Coffs Harbour race.
Another yacht, the M3, was disabled assisting in the search for Lennon and was blown north up the coastline with no power or sails in 50 knot winds and 5-6 metre seas on a certain path to destruction at the aptly named Treachery beach near Seal Rocks.
Despite having been on the water for 12 hours already that day, the crew of the PS40 volunteered to go out again, at night, in cyclonic seas and attempt a rescue. This crew was replaced by a fresh crew due to fatigue but the danger remained palpable.
It took them five hours battling through a mire “darker than the inside of a cow” as Neil recalled, just to catch up with the M3 just the break at Treachery. Never a good place to be in a cyclone.
Mr Nolan was one of seven crew members on the PS40 when it endured a triple knockdown after midnight during that “extended operation”.
A “knockdown’’ refers to what happens when a 32-tonne bull terrier of a vessel is hit sidewards by upwards of four metres of whitewater and tips over.
The crew on the stricken M3 reported seeing the propellors of the PS40 out of the water. Truly sphincter-tightening conditions, Mr Hansford quipped.
That happened three times in a row, rag-dolling the crew, who were tethered to the boat by safety lines and sheer hope.
One man suffered a dislocated shoulder, another a serious head gash and all were trapped by safety lines and debri as the tempest raged.
The M3 was gone (washed up on Treachery beach, as the crew scrambled ashore in a life raft), the PS40’s engines were gone and the crew were stuck in limbo contemplating oblivion. Things were grim.
Nolan’s instinctive reactions to save two of his mates in the face of extreme peril earned him the Valour award. But it was a team effort that saved the PS40.
As the boat righted, the battered crew got the engines restarted, cleared rope away from the props and then began the arduous five-hour journey back to Port Stephens battling cyclonic waves, headwinds, injuries and severe sea sickness.
Survival was not a given that night and the fact that grown men were in tears listening to recordings of the MRPS radio contacts at a later address to the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia underlines how traumatic the experience was.
For the RMPS is was just another day at the office, and not without precedent. Of the seven bravery award incidents ever bestowed by Marine Rescue NSW, four have been to Port Stephens members.
Marine Rescue is a volunteer non-government Emergency Service that is a not-for-profit charity.
The Radio Room is a fully accredited Search & Rescue Co-ordination Centre that never closes.
Since 2005 MRPS has saved 4200 lives, done 1956 rescue and assists, brought into port $222million worth of boats, racked up 20,000 volunteer crew hours, 253,000 volunteer radio hours, taken 261,000 radio calls and 233,000 phone calls.
As if that’s not enough on the plate, Marine Rescue Port Stephens also serves as the Communications Centre for the Rural Fire Services outside of normal office hours covering the Shires of Port Stephens, Dungog, Cessnock and Maitland, maintains the grounds of Nelson Bay headland and operates the gift shop daily.
The classic conundrum is that despite the Herculean efforts, only 20 per cent of operations is government funded, the rest coming from fundraising and donations.
And that’s why Mr Hansford is putting out a call for more volunteers.
“Volunteers are critical and you don’t have to necessarily be on the boats; you can do radio training, help run our gift shop or maintain the areas. We have 200 members, 35 per cent female, and it takes that many, and then some, to get the work done. Rest assured, there is a job for everyone.”
For more information ring 0437 584 383.