Times are really tough, right now, aren’t they? So many people have had to stop going to work because of the coronavirus. Do you know someone who is still going to work? Why are some people working and others not? Most of the people who are going to work at the moment are people whose jobs are deemed as essential serves. Perhaps you’re still going to work if you’re a cashier at a supermarket, or a petrol attendant. These people are essential to continuing the services we need to live and eat.

The other group of people still going to work are those in emergency services. Emergency services include paramedics who go to sick people in ambulances, fire fighters who need to be ready to fight fires and those who help those in distress around our coast line. These people’s work involves saving lives.

We interviewed a volunteer member of the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) to find out more about the work they do. Although much of the work done by the NSRI is done by volunteers, the skills you learn while doing this can lead to other study and work opportunities. This is true of so many volunteer experiences.

We interviewed Andrew to find out more about this:

1. What role does the NSRI play in South Africa’s emergency services?

The NSRIs role is to help people (and animals) in distress around the coastline of South Africa and inland water ways such as the Vaal Dam. The NSRI directly saves the lives of people as well as helping other mammals such as whales and dolphins who are trapped in fish or octopus’ nets. Helping whales caught in nets is quite difficult. They are very big and because they are trying to free themselves they are often flapping around. You can’t swim up to them and try and release them. The NSRI call in the help of SAWDN (The South African Whale Disentanglement Network) to help us with this specialist work.

2. Why did you decide to become an NSRI volunteer?

I was attracted by saving people and animals. When you save a person you’re also keeping a family happy; you’re saving all the people around them who love them.

3. Tell me about some of the experiences you’ve had while volunteering for the NSRI.

Sure. For one of our rescues we had to travel 30 to 40 nautical miles (about 70 kms) out of Cape Town to a commercial fishing boat. The skipper had had a stroke and urgently needed to be evacuated to hospital. We had to get him off the fishing boat and onto our boat, into the cabin where a paramedic could help him until we got him to shore. It took us about 8 hours; we came back during the night. It was really nerve-wracking. You can’t see land so there’s no point to orientate yourself with and it takes a lot of teamwork from the people on the NSRI boat to get him off. It’s difficult to transfer between two boats. You don’t want the person (who is on a stretcher) to fall between the boats into the sea or be crushed by the boats. It’s hair-raising stuff; we practise, practise and practise but it’s different in the big seas.

We also helped a Canadian who had a self-built boat. He was sailing along the East Coast of South Africa from East London. He was sailing alone, had no automatic equipment and a massive boat. By the time he got to False Bay he was exhausted and there was a massive South-Easter wind blowing. He arrived at night time and sailed up and down the coast from Gordon’s Bay to Cape Hangklip throughout the night. He was scared he would be blown up against the rocks. In the morning he sailed across to Simon’s Town and put two anchors down outside the harbour. The wind was so strong that he was still being pushed against the rocks. The NSRI went out to help him then and it took 3 or 4 people to pull up one of the long anchors. It was really heavy as it had lots of heavy chain attached to it. The swells were really high and were sweeping over the front of the boat at that stage. It was scary. Eventually we pulled the boat with our bigger boat, dragging the other anchor into the harbour. The owner of the boat was shattered but we saved him and his boat.

4. What qualities do you need to do this work?

You need to be dedicated, serious about what you do but also fun loving. You need to be able to work in a team, communicate clearly and be enthusiastic. You need to have a willingness and be inspired to help people. You need to be able to swim although you don’t need to be brilliant at it. You need to be able to get to the base (the bases are scattered around the shoreline of the country). Often, in an emergency, a team member will pick you up on the way if it’s not too far away.

You don’t need any experience in the sea. You don’t need to know how to tie knots or anything like that. You get properly trained.

You do need to be willing to give up your own time and be willing to drop whatever you are doing and go and help if you’re needed.

5. What kind of training do you get?

The NSRI does in-house training for free if you are a volunteer. You have seamanship training, navigation training, marine radio operating training, very good first aid training and training on the basics of boats and boat engines – the whole thing.

You get practical, classroom and online training. You need to have completed a certain number of hours on a boat before you can become crew. You also need to pass an assessment.

6. What job opportunities are there that come from volunteering at the NSRI?

There are a variety of jobs that the NSRI has. There are administrative, marketing and financial jobs. There are other voluntary jobs at the NSRI such as the donation department.

After volunteering at the NSRI, you can go to college and study lots of different things in the field. If you apply for a college and they see that you have done this voluntary work the lights will go on for the recruiters and you will get a place more easily than if you hadn’t volunteered.

7. What motivates people to volunteer to the NSRI?

There are a number of good reasons to volunteer but it is always subjective. You may love to be on boats, you might want to specialise in something, you might want to save lives, you may want to feel part of a family, you may want to drive a 4×4 vehicle, you may want a father figure and be part of a team. You will meet new people and do exciting things.

8. What advice do you have for young people?

Never let your circumstances get in the way of pursing what you are passionate about. Many people who have become successful have followed their passions never mind their circumstances.

I read about this guy who pushed trolleys at Checkers to earn money to support his family. At night he studied engineering by candle light on his phone – can you imagine studying on a phone and how hard that must be? He got a diploma, then got bursaries and became an engineer.

People in this country have a huge hang-up about getting degrees but we need people with skills who support the ‘rocket scientist’! Who is building the homes, who is putting in the plumbing, who is stacking the bricks? There’s so much more to do. If you follow your passion you can come become anything from a sommelier (a sommelier is a wine steward who is an expert in fine wine and is responsible for serving it to patrons) to an air traffic control person.

It was interesting to chat to Andrew about his experience as a NSRI volunteer. Although the work he does is unpaid, the training is excellent and he gained a great deal of experience in the field. If someone is enthusiastic about helping those at sea, a stint volunteering for an organisation such as the NSRI might be an excellent springboard into a career that follows this path.

If you are still in school and below grade 10 it is advised to enroll at a maritime school where marine related subjects are offered. Although this is not essential it provides you with a better understanding of the industry and your decision to study maritime subjects will be made with a better knowledge of what to expect. If you do have a Grade 12 you can enter at officer candidate level. If you have finished school but don’t have a matric you can enter training on the Ratings level. You will need to have done Maths and Physical Science.

Here are places you can apply to study in the marine field (you do NOT need to have volunteered for the NSRI to study!):

SA Maritime School and Transport College
Durban and Cape Town campuses
Email: DURBAN: dbnenquiries@samaritime.co.za
CAPE TOWN: ctnenquiries@samaritime.co.za
Tel: DURBAN: 031 337 7889
CAPE TOWN: 021 447 4445
Website: https://samaritime.co.za/

Maritime School of Excellence
Durban, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Richards Bay campuses
Tel: +27 31 361 2397
Website: https://www.transnet.net/Career/Pages/Maritime-School-of-Excellence.aspx

SAMTRA (South African Marine Training Academy)
Simon’s Town
Email: recruitment@samtra.co.za
Tel: 021 786 8400
Website: https://www.samtra.co.za/careers-at-sea/

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Cape Town
Tel: +27 21 440 5752
Website: cput.ac.za

Durban University of Technology
Tel: 031 373 2144
Website: https://www.dut.ac.za/faculty/applied_sciences/maritime_studies/

I feel as if I have just touched the tip of the iceberg with the various courses you can take to study in this field! There does seem to be plenty of opportunities as well as some funding, including NSFAS for public colleges.


Tell us: Do you know someone who is working in emergency services during lockdown? How are they finding their job right now?