Hopefully, you and I will never need the services the Lifesaver Rescue team, but isn't it comforting to know that they are out there waiting to help if required, in a boat capable of handling the toughest of conditions to enabling them to perform rescues safely.
Issue: September 2003
Ever wondered what those big, fast, yellow 'Lifesaver Rescue' boats get up to during a typical day. Let me enlighten you, because Lifesaver Rescue craft have taken on a slightly different role in this day and age. In the 1980s I recall the Surf Lifesaving Association was equipped with gutsy inboard powered jet boats designed to work right in among the waves. These craft were small ' around 16 feet ' and had a unique rounded bow and cabin design to enabled the craft to confront the surf head-on. Most were built around the Seafarer V-Sea hull and they were and still are one of the best sea boats I have driven. They were designed to have an active role in the surf and their jet power enabled them to work around swimmers safely.
But as rubber duckies (with encased propellers) and more powerful PWCs took over this role, the need for larger lifesaving craft evolved. Nowadays, the larger boats hang offshore and adopt a mother craft role providing support to the smaller boats and lifesavers. On particularly bad days the Lifesaver Rescue cat will sit outside the break, where any people rescued by the smaller vessels are dropped off instead of being taken directly to shore. This allows the lifesavers to get back to their job faster, while the rescued person would receive more immediate attention on these well-equipped platforms.
During major rescue operations, patients can be dropped of onto the 'Noosa Cat' to receive immediate attention and if things get really bad the crew can call in a chopper, prepare and then have the patient winched directly from the boat and taken quickly to hospital. The vessel I was aboard to research this article was a recently commissioned 6m Noosa Cat owned by the Malabar Surf Rescue. They often launch directly into the bay at Malabar where they have a base and dedicated ramp for the boat. It was a crisp Saturday morning on the cusp of winter when I joined George Shales (Sponsorship Coordinator), Matthew Evans (Captain) and John Restuccia (self-proclaimed best driver) who during the off-season have the boat working on an 'on-call basis'.
But because the tide was low and there was no urgency, we launched her at a nearby ramp in Botany Bay. The weather bureau's forecast was for seas up to 3-5m, but thankfully they got it wrong and the swell was 1-2m with little chop if any. By around midday the wind and the seas had picked up, perhaps that was what the forecasters were talking about, but it was nowhere near 3-5m. George explained that the volunteer organisation had a support role on rescue operations co-ordinated by the Water Police and Waterways. 'We spend a lot of time working in close to the shore plucking out rock fisherman 'dead and alive'.
Their stretch of the coast encompassed some of the most densely populated parts of Sydney's eastern suburbs, so it is little wonder that a day out with the surf rescue boys can provides some pretty interesting action. For most larger boats a trip up the coast is completed well out from the shore, but a day onboard the Lifesaver Rescue is packed with a variety of short, high-speed runs and quick visits to beaches and protected inlets where drop offs on rocks are made that any larger craft would normally steer well clear of.
It's exactly the kind of variety that dive boats and small boat fisherman tackle during a day trip, so it's not all that surprising that they turn out to be the blokes surf rescue often end up helping. Recovering bodies, rescuing fisherman and travelling many miles offshore to track down lost divers are all part of a days work for these volunteers. In order of frequency the Malabar boat's primary role is patrolling the beaches, rescuing rock fishermen and then diver retrieval. According to George Shales, the boat has an on-call crew of 12, who all have mobiles and pages. In the event of emergency, response time are quick and depending on the seas we can be up at Sydney Heads in 20 minutes.
George recalls many days when the crew has been called up to The Gap near South Head, to deal with attempted and unfortunately some successful suicides. 'The difference with the Surf Lifesaving boat is that our guys will get into the water to make effective a rescue whereas MSB and the Water Police will attempt rescue from the craft. But in a suicide situation being able to get into the water with the patient can make all the difference. So it is only after closer examination of the Lifesaver Rescue boat's operations that there distinct role becomes clear. The key difference is that these guys are Lifesavers. Onboard they have all the standard resuscitation and in-water rescue equipment a lifesaver is familiar with, so there is less emphasis on the heavier equipment that you would find the Water Police and Waterways carrying.
It is interesting that Surf Rescue is part of the Surf Life Saving Association with all volunteers gaining most of their qualifications through Surf Lifesaving. But they are also required to study coastal navigation and the time spent aboard the craft can be used to qualify for them for a Master Class V ticket. Each crewmember must also be able to perform all the various tasks required onboard the boat, because during a rescue in big seas you just don't know what's going to happen next. One craft that does this job well is the 23 Series Noosa Cat. Malabar's big yellow rig was set-up by Andrew Short Marine with twin Offshore V6 140hp Mercury outboards, spinning 19" four-blade Offshore Series stainless steel props.
We were out in relatively calm conditions, so the boys were all too keen to show me just how fast the boat would go offshore and I can honestly say that the boat handled everything that was thrown at it with sure-footed ease. With John driving it was pretty much hold on and let the boat sort out the conditions for itself, which it managed to do without spending too much time in the air. There was some dispute as to, who was the 'best' offshore driver on the day, but during the showdown the Cat revealed its excellent dry ride, balanced landings off slanted crests and a great cruising speed for a 6m craft. At 4000rpm the big cat cruised effortlessly around 27 knots, while offshore at 5000rpm the craft had little trouble hitting at maintaining 36 knots.
Flat out at 'rescue speed' pulling 5500rpm our GPS readout hit 41 knots with the self-claimed 'best rescue boat driver' John at the helm, this speed put a fair amount of air under the hulls. On the handling side of the fence, this big cat produced an excellent soft ride as she skimmed the sea on the cushion of air trapped between the hull and the water. Like all cats, she leans out in turns, but even at high speeds the wrap-around seats and high gunwales kept the crew safely inside. It feels a bit strange to somebody riding in a cat for the first time, but you quickly get used to the feeling. Plus, the excellent soft ride of a cat in almost all conditions makes putting up with this 'strange' feeling an easy cross to bear. We figured that most features used by the Surf Rescue guys are standard on any 6m Noosa Cat including the topside doors that open right into the sea.
Mind you the rocket transport seating is an option adopted by the Surf Rescue only. The boat is set-up for a crew of four. There are four seats and when the conditions get tough the seats can be dropped so the crew can stand to take the impact of the rough seas with their top half supported by the bucket seat. The boat's layout has evolved from their last Noosa Cat to a point where the handsets are now split from the radio units so the radios don't end up exposed to weather.
Naturally the craft has a functional utilitarian layout with small forward cabin that has a forward hatch giving easy access to the bow. Moving around the outside of the boat is a bit tricky with not much space underfoot and no grab handles, so the forward hatch was a blessing. It was also large enough to let me with all my camera gear off on the beach at Little Bay to shoot some pics.
Hopefully, you and I will never need the services the Lifesaver Rescue team, but isn't it comforting to know that they are out there waiting to help if required, in a boat capable of handling the toughest of conditions to enabling them to perform rescues safely. For further details on Surf Lifesaving Association contact National Surf Lifesaving on (02) 9130 7370.
Words by Andrew Richardson