Rescuers engarde

By Roger Moroney

When it's all added up, it would be something of an understatement to say there is a fair bit of coastline around this land of ours.

While the country is a mere 1600km in length, the edges where land meets the sea measures about 15,130km. That's the equivalent from Auckland to Sydney . . . seven times.

And that coastline is made up of every imaginable variety. Rocks, reefs, sand, shingle, sheer cliffs . . . the lot.

It's a big patch but the New Zealand Coastguard has it covered. Although the federation did not officially come into being until 1976, after sea-rescue groups got together to create a national body, the history of ''guarding'' the coast

goes back a lot earlier - to 1861.

It was in October that year that the first recorded marine search-and-rescue operation was carried out, off the coast of Lyttleton. A lifeboat had been pressed into action to rescue people in distress.

The following year the Canterbury Provincial Secretary ordered an official rescue lifeboat, and two years later it arrived and was stationed at Timaru.

It served the Canterbury coastline for another 20 years.

The first permanent rescue service was set up at Sumner in 1898. The Coastguard began to spread its operations

throughout the coastlines of the country, usually as the result of a seafaring tragedy.

And, as it still is today, the rescue units were organised and manned by volunteers - people who wanted to make their coastal patch a safer place.

The establishment of the units was effectively driven by fundraising and grants from people and businesses who wanted to do their bit - to put something back into their community to make aquatic life safer. The service grew, as did its sophistication and reputation.

Eight years ago there were 63 volunteer Coastguard units operating around New Zealand, and it was unanimously agreed that they would become affiliated and that regionalisation would take place.

The country was split into four operating regions - northern, eastern, central and southern. Branding was also affiliated into one recognisable logo and the word ''federation'' was dropped in favour of The Royal New Zealand

Coastguard Inc (Prince Charles is its patron).

Today there are 69 units around the country, comprising 58 ''wet'' units equipped with boats, 10 air patrol units and one communications unit.

Among the regions, the eastern stretch is a challenging one as it is a popular recreational boating and fishing stretch.

It takes in Whitianga and Whangamata on the Coromandel, down to Tauranga, through to Whakatane, Opotiki and Waihau, Gisborne and Hawke's Bay.

There are also some freshwater operations, with the Rotorua Lakes and Lake Taupo Volunteer Coastguard units.

Nationally, the Coastguard responds to about 3500 incidents a year on average-which works out to about 10 every day.

The incidents include everything from kayakers caught out by currents or winds, anglers whose boats have broken down, yachties at the mercy of rising seas and failing gear, a launch colliding with a partially submerged log, even an urgent medical issue which requires immediate evacuation to shore.

On the basis that there is often more than one person in a stricken boat, the number of lives saved from the sea would be about 5000 a year.

The Hawke's Bay Coastguard typifies the approach of the service. It's all about devotion and dedication -or, as its Volunteer of the Year Erin Lawrence said, ''giving something back''.

She joined the Bay's Coastguard crew about six years ago and was involved in helping set up its communications  systems. She now helps oversee its training programmes.

Peter Boshier joined the Coastguard 12 years ago, when there were only about 50 members and supporters. Today there are about 650.

He says that like all regions, Hawke's Bay people can be proud of what the Coastguard has achieved and how it has become a professional and expertly driven service mainly through community effort.

''We receive very little funding from the Government so we rely on community support,'' Mr Boshier said.

That support has seen the Bay's service morph into a top-flight equipped service, with a $1 million specialised rescue boat and an impressive headquarters which includes a maritime education and training centre.

It provides instruction and courses for day skipper and boatmaster tickets, radio operation and first aid, GPS operation, and basic and advanced sea survival skills.

''We have built a strong profile and we are continuing to grow,'' he said. His words also sum things up for the national

body, and that's good news for the growing number of people who are taking to the waters off our coastline as the sunshine of spring and summer returns.

- Hamilton News

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