Our boat crews and radio operators are trained to deal with many different types of search and rescue (SAR) activity. Some are very straightforward and are completed in half an hour or less, whilst others may continue over several days and involve multiple crew changeovers.
The one thing that is guaranteed is that no two SAR activities are ever the same. So our volunteers have to plan and execute each SAR action according to the circumstances they are faced with.
The majority of our SAR activities could be classified as “routine rescues”, where something has gone wrong with the boat and it can’t make it back to harbour without assistance. In most cases, we arrive on scene, attach a tow-rope and pull the vessel back to harbour. When the vessel is safely back in its’ pen, or tied up at the boat-ramp, we simply complete some paperwork, invite the rescued skipper to make a donation, (we are not permitted to charge for our services), and the job is complete.
Over the years, we have found that the majority of these breakdowns were avoidable because they were caused by simple problems that are easy to check. The most frequent causes are fuel, (eg: lack of fuel or fuel contaminated by condensation in the tank), or battery problems, (eg: battery life shortened by being left discharged over winter).
We also find quite a few breakdowns occur immediately after an engine service. You can avoid this type of breakdown by checking a few things before you head out to sea. Check out the Dept of Transport BEST checklist.
From time to time, we are called on to respond to an emergency, which might involve a vessel running aground, sinking, fire on board or perhaps a small vessel swamped by a large wave when pulling pots. This may be notified as a MAYDAY call, or by setting off a flare.
In these circumstances, we look to our rapid response vessel, (Green 2, travelling at anything up to 47knots) to get us on scene as quickly as possible. These rescues will frequently involve getting people safely out of the water and getting them back onshore quickly, where they can access medical assistance if necessary.
In many cases, we will deploy a second vessel to attend the stricken vessel and possibly collect any flotsam in the area.
Once in a while there is an accident or sudden illness at sea and here again, we will mobilise as quickly as possible to get to the location of the vessel with the injured or sick passenger on board. Depending on circumstances, we may be able to have a helicopter attend the scene and conduct a medical evacuation from the deck of our vessel so the patient can be airlifted to hospital.
Alternatively, we may use the rapid response vessel to get the patient to the nearest harbour to rendezvous with an ambulance.
Local Area Searches
A substantial number of our SAR activities involve searching for a vessel, or other object. We can be called upon to begin a search for a number of reasons, including:
- someone who logged on with us earlier in the day has not returned and logged off when they told us they would and they are now significantly overdue,
- a relative has called up to say someone hasn’t returned home when expected and there is concern for their safety. (Often this is someone who didn’t logon at the start of their trip).
- reports of a flare sighting,
- an EPIRB activated in the area,
- someone has called for assistance, but they can’t tell us their location,
There are some checks that we can perform before launching a search, but if after checking it is likely that the missing vessel is still at sea, we will begin a search in the most probable area. The search may involve multiple Whitfords vessels and may also include vessels from neighbouring sea rescue groups and Water Police vessels.
Fixed wing aircraft and helicopters may also be deployed.
Searches present different types of challenge to the crews, because they have to be focussed on keeping a lookout for long periods for anything in the water, whilst ensuring the safety of their own vessel and crew. Afternoon and evening searches are particularly challenging with the sun low on the horizon and with typical afternoon wave height of up to a metre, it is not always easy to pick up objects in the water. The search can often be complicated by cray-floats which have been thoughtlessly deployed on the leads into our local harbours.
Once or twice a year, we are called on to participate in a search that extends a significant distance out to sea and that may be conducted over multiple days.
In addition to all the usual challenges of conducting a search, these long-range searches also present issues of endurance for the crew, who occasionally have to continue searching throughout an entire night.
As part of the continuing training of volunteer crews, we regularly conduct simulated rescues and searches. We also regularly train for medivac emergencies with helicopter operators.