A crew from the Mooloolaba QF6 flotilla springs into action.
A crew from the Mooloolaba QF6 flotilla springs into action. Roxanne Mccarty-Okane

Steep price to save lives

IT takes a special sort of person to sign up and stick as a member of the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard.

Apart from the fact your life can be put in very real danger, this is an organisation that plays by a very rigid set of rules.

"It's the coast guard way here," a member of Blue Sunday crew explains with an accepting laugh as a knot is taught for a simple purpose. It is clearly designed not to come undone.

The Blue Sunday crew I joined for the day come from diverse backgrounds - a marine engineer, air force service crew, outback fuel depot owner, mortgage broker and Northern Territory lawyer among them, all lured by the opportunity to work as a team for their community.

Included in the other five crews that make up the Mooloolaba QF6 flotilla, there is even a second officer on a Qantas A380. Many have been - and are - boat owners.

Crew training days start with a thorough briefing at Coast Guard headquarters at the western end of the Mooloolaba Spit public boat ramps. Everyone wears a uniform they have paid for themselves.

The vessel Rhondda Rescue is prepared for the day, everything checked twice and a rigorous procedure followed to the letter.

There is a warm camaraderie among the crew, but order is rigid.

It's not my idea of fun, which makes the dedication required to play this very serious game, all the more laudable.

Yet around the harbour, the experience and seamanship of the Coast Guard is questioned. The recent flipping of Rotary Two on the bar and a tow gone wrong which saw a rescued fisherman threaten to sue, add fuel to that perception.

It may be easy for some to mock the uniforms and rigidity and occasional error of seamanship, but no one laughs when they are in desperate need of help.

The sea can quickly and cruelly expose the cocky. It's the night assists in bad weather that are the toughest.

In 2010 Rhondda Rescue travelled 230 nm (425km) in heavy seas over 36 hours to tow to harbour the Plastiki catamaran made of 12,500 plastic bottles which had been enroute to Australia highlighting the rubbishing of the world's oceans.

A rescue off the Barwon Banks can take five hours.

Other call outs can be frustrating. Blue Sunday skipper Ian Hunt says there have been cases where yachts have had two GPS on board each giving different positions, both of which were wrong.

Inaccurate information being fed from a vessel in distress has resulted in a nine-hour search that could have been averted if the owner had been properly prepared.

If more boaties paid the attention to detail shown by the Coast Guard before leaving port, there would be far less need of its services.

It is why the Coast Guard is so rigorously controlled by procedures that cover every aspect of its operation. A Registered Training Organisation, the Coast Guard used TDM Units of Competency that are identical to those used in a commercial maritime workplace.

New Blue Sunday crew man David Bowling is a mortgage broker who was once rescued in the Sandy Straits. He's never forgotten how grateful he was to be back on dry land.

After a shift to the Coast he gave practical application to that gratitude. With two young boys aged 21 months and three and a half months his initial training has required enormous commitment from himself and his wife.

"I know I have to put in a lot of hours to become competent crew," he said. "I haven't had a weekend at home since I started.

There's training, raffles, first aid, the Monday night radio course and meetings on the first Wednesday of every month. But I plan to be in it for the long term. I know if you have something to achieve you have to commit to it."

The flotilla is supported by about 135 volunteers around half of whom are rostered to serve at sea.

The crews are rostered in turn for the busy weekend shifts and put their names down as available for call out mid week.

Training is intense. Mid week and on weekend - as a group and as a crew - everyone must attain and then maintain a core level of skills.

Pathways are provided to more specialised positions in the radio control room, maintaining communications on board, steering and navigating the vessel and supervising the taking on of a tow, or picking up a person from the water.

Crew are expected to pay for specific training out of their own pockets. There is a fair bit of that in an organisation that is clearly under-funded by government.

Insurance and uniforms are also a crew member responsibility as is regular fundraising which helps build the kitty for the inevitable need to replace boats.

Selling raffle tickets at the markets, outside BCF, in caravan parks and at Cotton Tree and The Spit is a non-negotiable condition of being a boat crew member.

You do not go to sea whatever your qualifications unless you have done your bit, raffle book in hand, for the future of the service.

The state government gives $20,000 annually, the same amount it did 20 years ago, to assist operational funding.

There is also $10,000 a year towards a new boat.

The flotilla, with support from the public, must come up with the balance.

There is a considerable gap between the government's meagre contribution and the flotilla's $115,000 operational costs.

It must also raise around $80,000 annually to top up the government's $10,000 to realistically be able to replace the main rescue vessel every decade.

Money also needs to be found to refurbish and eventually replace the 7.3 metre twin 115hp Fisher Offshore Rotary Two and a smaller inflatable craft.

It will cost around $1 million to replace the 13.8 metre, $480,000 Rhondda Rescue.

Blue Sunday holds the record of $1250 for a day's fund raising but the norm is somewhere between $100 and $500 a shift.

Money also comes from 1200 associate members who pay $65 annually directly to the Coast Guard which covers assisted tows up to 25 nautical miles and discounts on things like radio and first aid courses.

You can also join through BCF for $50 which has an Australia-wide arrangement with the Coast Guard.

Call for a tow and you are not a member and you will be asked to cover the $150 an hour cost of your rescue.

"It's frustrating," said Blue Sunday roster skipper Ian Hunt. "There is a perception that we are a funded government operation. No one except the state manager gets paid. Everyone else has their hand in their own pocket a lot of the time."

On the day I ventured out with the Blue Sunday crew a call from a fisherman with a recalcitrant outboard saw us head out beyond the Blinker to effect a successful tow in to La Balsa Park.

But despite being grateful it was some time before the Coast Guard saw $185 of the $225 real cost of the exercise from the boat owner who had been short of work.

It's all par for the course for Coast Guard members who just wish boat owners would sign up as associates and allow them to spend more time on training and less on selling raffle tickets.


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