Wave Warriors

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Peter Garman has exactly the sort of twinkly, salt-weathered face you’d like to see if you were bobbing around in the middle of the ocean in a lifejacket, wondering if it was all over. A fair few people find themselves in this situation along the Matakana Coast every year, and as President of the Kawau Volunteer Coastguard its Peter’s job to try and ensure that as many people as possible live to see another day.There’s plenty of action, if that’s what you’re after. There were around 90 callouts last year. “Most people spend more time checking over their fishing gear than their boats when they head out after winter,” says maintenance man Brett Howlett. “A lot can happen in a few wet months: battery problems are just the tip of the iceberg.” Despite all precautions, things sometimes are destined to go pear-shaped. These two have some stories to make your hair curl. “Last year we happened to be out training on a Sunday afternoon when we had a callout. A guy was somewhere between Little Barrier and Great Barrier and his boat was sinking. We took off. Luckily our skipper was a DOC ranger who knew the currents between the islands well. “Her hunch was right. We found his boat with just the tip of the bow still above the waves – which were around one and half metres. It’s hard to see anyone in that swell – but this guy did something very clever, which probably saved his life,” Brett says. “He’d escaped the boat on a kayak but got thrown out and lost it. He had a lifejacket on, so he stuck his paddle down the back of it – it was sticking up high out of the water. That’s how we saw him, about 200m from his boat.” The sailor was seriously hypothermic though, and a paramedic was soon winched on to the boat from the Westpac helicopter. (Peter is rueful. “I’ve spent years training for a helicopter deck landing! Missed it…”). All ended well, but the paramedic estimated that the guy may have only had another 20 minutes left in him if they hadn’t found him. The Coastguarders are on call 24/7, but there aren’t really enough of them up here. They have between 20-24 volunteers on the books at the moment – but it’s whoever’s around that can be problematic. “We are required to have a skipper, one senior, one ‘operational’ and one other on board when we go out on a rescue,” says Peter. “And if you start as an ‘inductee’, it would take at least 18 months to get to a senior level.” Even though inductees are out on the water quite quickly, they need five modules of training to get to trainee level. Once a trainee, it’s another 12-15 modules to get to ‘operational’ level. You’ll be aiming for senior and skipper after that so that’s another 10+ modules. Peter and Brett say it’s quite a lot of fun: “You’re always supported and we never throw anyone in at the, er, deep end,” says Peter. “But the training never really stops. You have to keep up with techniques and technology.” Once you’re in, there’s classroom training and one ‘duty week’ on rotation for each of the three crews. It costs around $4K a month for this unit just to stay operational. That’s without any extra dramas like the $6K they are currently having to spend on fixing their trailer. Government funding they receive is negligible, apart from being reimbursed for their diesel when they have to go out on a mission. The rest is up to them. “We do have the National Summer Lottery which runs from December to February,” says Brett. “We all sell tickets and most of the ticket price comes directly back to our local unit. We get amazing support from many community groups in our area too: the Algies Bay Residents and Ratepayers Association, the Lions Ladies with their Christmas tree show in Warkworth – and Music in the Gardens on Kawau Island have been a huge help – their donation last year paid for new pontoons on the boat.” We all agree: ongoing maintenance of this most excellent bunch who may save your life is a no-brainer. So if you’ve got any spare time, spare cash, or spare fundraising ideas, get in touch with Vice President Luke McCarthy. T: 021 263 1586 | E: luke.mccarthy@vodafone.co.nz. Find them on Facebook: Kawau Volunteer Coastguard