Coastguard with no coast kept busy
Each year, Coastguard New Zealand volunteers bring about 7100 people home to safety, with search and rescue volunteers dedicating countless hours of their own time to training, then rescuing those who get into trouble on the water, putting in at least 360
On State Highway 8 at Clyde, where the Otago Central Rail Trail begins, stands a modest double-bay tin shed, proudly bearing the name Coastguard Clyde. To the visitor it may seem that they’ve hit the South Island’s coast a couple hours too early, or maybe the sign’s displaying a humour as dry as the region’s climate, because surely there can’t be too many sea rescues here? However, as incongruous as a snowflake in the Sahara, for nearly 10 years Clyde, heart of the New Zealand desert, has boasted its own coastguard. ‘‘People do start laughing when they see our sign,’’ Coastguard Clyde president Tony Smith admits. The coastguard name is a misnomer, a relic from an earlier time in Maritime New Zealand’s coastal guardianship history, with the role growing to encompass inland waterways. Clyde was the first of the southern inland units to be set up, followed by Lake Brunner in 2006, Queenstown in 2007, Wanaka and Twizel in 2011. These units also assist police in search, rescue and recovery, acting as the fall-back position for Civil Defence in the case of a natural disaster such as an earthquake. With the cycle-tourism boom looking set to continue, it’s likely that the coastguard will become a more common sight on the Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes waterways. ‘‘People get stranded, or get injured falling off their bikes, and if they are near the river or lake, sometimes it’s just easier to rescue them by boat,’’ Mr Smith said. Even locals who have got used to seeing the coastguard’s base on Department on Conservation land near Clyde and the highviz red rescue boat on nearby waterways, still seem confused about what the unit is and what it actually does, Mr Smith said. ‘‘People will say ‘where are your guns?’ Although we assist the police, we don’t have any police powers, but I guess it’s a bit like putting police cars out on the road. If you have the patrol boat out on the water people do behave themselves.’’ Volunteers spend about 45 per cent of their time training for something they may never have to do, and that’s save a life. This involves getting search and rescue qualifications, providing water safety services for local groups, and for some, gaining a Day Skipper qualification, which tests current-reading, chart-plotting and marine VHF Radio communication. Inland units were set up to keep a local skill-base of people with water-rescue experience, Coastguard Southern Region manager, Cheryl Moffat, says. ‘‘It’s better to be called out and not be needed than to not get called out.’’ As a voluntary organisation that receives only 15 per cent government funding, coastguards are mostly reliant on community fundraising. To find out about volunteering or making a donation, go to: coastguard.co.nz The Clutha River, which Maori called the Mata-au meaning ‘surfaced current,’ one of world’s coldest, swiftest, most treacherous water-ways, claims many lives, including a victim who drowned while taking samples from a water discharge, and was swept 90km downstream to Beaumont, his body found seven days later. The coastguard rescued seven people in the last year. President Tony Smith said every job was different. ‘‘Sometimes a callout may only be for an hour, sometimes it may last for days, and I guess the satisfying thing is that in the case of body recovery, it’s good to give closure to people.’’ Coastguard Wanaka Lakes members are using their own private vessels until they can raise enough funds to buy a dedicated rescue boat. In the short time the coastguard has been officially in operation, New Zealand’s fourth largest lake, Lake Wanaka, has tested the new unit’s search and rescue skills with a missing yachtsman whose body was eventually recovered, and a kayaker on Lake Hawea, who was never found. Two people were also rescued since July last year. The year before 13 people were rescued. In 2008, a year after the unit opened, Coastguard Queenstown was given a rescue boat on loan from Coastguard New Zealand, to service New Zealand’s longest lake and one of the deepest. As a heavilyused waterway, search efforts have varied from capsized and sunken vessels, to jet-ski collisions, a parapenter, and the recovery of two French tourists who died in a kayak accident. While out training one night Coastguard Queenstown volunteers noticed an capsized dinghy with a young person sitting atop it. They found that the mast had snapped and he was mildly hypothermic. Volunteers rescued eight people since July last year and nine the previous year.
Clyde HQ: Coastguard Clyde members vicepresident James Robinson, left, and president Tony Smith, outside their building on State Highway 8.
Longest lake: Jay Berriman with Queenstown Coastguard’s boat.
Lake Dunstan watch: Coastguard Clyde president Tony Smith.