Stop by any Coastguard unit and you will encounter New Zealanders calmly and professionally going about the intense business of saving lives at sea.
Our volunteers are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
National Volunteer Week provides an opportunity for us to stop and appreciate the invaluable contribution made by Coastguard volunteers to our communities.
Our volunteers come from many different walks of life but all have a desire to give back and provide help to those who need it most. For some Coastguard volunteers this may see them going from being in a suit in the office to performing a rescue in a single afternoon.
Over 2,000 Coastguard volunteers gave their time and skills to help keep communities safe on the water last year, bringing more than 6,700 Kiwis home safely, let us introduce you to some of them…
Ian Graham - volunteer for Coastguard Northern Region Communications
Pete Kara - volunteer for Coastguard Nelson
Brent Sarten - volunteer for Coastguard Wellington
Campbell Hope - volunteer for Coastguard Auckland
Trish Huisman - volunteer for Coastguard Manawatu
Tony Smith - volunteer for Coastguard Clyde
Volunteer for Coastguard Northern Region Communications
Day job: Retired Professor
Involvement with Coastguard: since 2012
Looking out across the sea, volunteer radio operator Ian Graham patiently stands by for the next distress call. In his role at Coastguard Northern Region Communications, he can receive a staggering 300 calls a day. He’s one of the many volunteers who are the calm voice at the end of the line keeping boaties safe on the water.
Ian’s volunteered with the Communications team for the past six years, and has seen his fair share of urgent callouts. He has the difficult job of remaining calm and composed even when there’s no guarantee the people he helps will be OK. Ian’s years of training and experience help get him through these difficult times.
“When a call comes in your heart rate goes up, and you do feel quite nervous,” says Ian. “But we do a lot of training and part of that is how to respond to a distress situation. That’s very important because any radio operator at any time will out of the blue get a distress call.
“Normally you’d get a routine call dealing with a stuck anchor or a motor that won’t start. But when a more urgent call comes in, training is very, very important to make sure
we don’t clam up.”
Ian’s years of service have involved him in many memorable rescues.
“I remember once taking a Mayday call on an afternoon shift. There was an elderly person, probably just a bit younger than me, who had capsized in the harbour. He was freezing and couldn’t get back into his kayak.”
Whenever a Mayday call like this comes in, Ian looks to his cue cards to help him respond to the person in trouble. There are three key questions he needs to ask in order to save them.
“You have to determine the position, problem and people – where are you, what’s the problem, and how many people are we looking for? If you can get those three things, then everyone else can swing into action and get the rescue vessels on the way.”
Once Ian got all the information he needed, Coastguard volunteers jumped into their vessels and headed out into the harbour to find the kayaker, and in just ten minutes he was rescued.
“Had he been in the water any longer it’s possible he might not have survived.”
Coastguard radio operators are vigilant around the clock to keep people safe on the water. Their constant presence is reassuring for many boaties, especially when something goes wrong. But for all his hard work and dedication, Ian is quick to brush off praise.
“We’re sitting in a very comfortable air conditioned facility looking out at the water. The Coastguard volunteers on the rescue vessels have the difficult job of bringing people
“But we’re a vital part of the whole system. Without the radio operators and the duty officer it would be extremely hard for the rescue crews to do their job. And of course
the duty officers are the ones who plan how a rescue is carried out.
“It’s very satisfying helping people in difficult situations where you manage to get them help in time.”
Volunteer for Coastguard Nelson
Day job: Emergency Management for Nelson District Health Board
Involvement with Coastguard: Since 2005
Pete Kara is truly a man for all seasons. He works full-time in emergency management for his local District Health Board – a challenging job that would be plenty for most of us. But Pete has also been a Coastguard volunteer for over ten years.
Pete says that he “doesn’t like being bored. I love action and being out and about in the water. It feels great to be part of something that gives back to the community, and helps provide safer waters for New Zealanders. It’s also a lot of fun.
“There’s a fantastic culture at Coastguard, as well as a great feeling of camaraderie and being part of a team. We all share the same passion."
Pete has seen many incidents in his time as a Coastguard volunteer – bleak situations where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. But 99% of the time, Coastguard volunteers are able to save the day.
“It can get a bit hairy out there, for sure,” says Pete. “The wind can gust through Tasman Bay, which makes it popular for yachting but also unpredictable – the sea can start getting pretty rough, pretty quickly.”
“One of our crew’s most memorable rescues was that of a couple on board the Tarapunga. They were rescued near Pepin Island, and many of the crew – and other local agencies, Police, the Harbourmaster and a commercial fishing vessel - were involved."
“Ten foot flames were leaping from the boat when our Coastguard Rescue Vessel (CRV) arrived but fortunately Carol and Gary had sensibly abandoned ship. We fought the fire, they were picked up and brought back to Port Nelson, in pretty good spirits. It was a happy outcome but it could easily have ended in disaster.”
“Successful rescues like that make all of the hours we put into managing our unit, training, maintaining our rescue vessel and keeping our volunteers skilled and motivated worthwhile.”
“Our unit, like others, from time to time get called to assist where a fatality has occurred, and working with Police it is sometimes up to us to return the deceased to land. While this is a difficult and emotional task, I believe our training and team work has helped our volunteers to not only cope but to carry out the task professionally, and with respect and dignity. It is also this same training that keeps our unit safe and able to do what we do."
“Coastguard works like a well-oiled machine that kicks into action every time a distress call is made. It really is 110 per cent a team effort.”
“Having experienced volunteers in the right roles gives us a much greater situational awareness, it means we can function well and meet all of our legal obligations.”
Pete knows full well that Coastguard wouldn’t exist without public support. “Without our supporters it just wouldn’t be possible to run a rescue service. We always need funding for rescue vessels, clothing, rescue gear and training. As volunteers, we can only do so much – the rest is down to the brilliant support we get from the community.”
Volunteer for Coastguard Wellington
Day job: Builder
Involvement with Coastguard: Since 1995
"My family are used to the pager," says Brent. "I've had it with me on Christmas Day for the last 14 years." Based in Wellington, he spends Christmas on call, ready to take to the water if help is needed on the perilous harbour and Cook Strait.
As the skipper in charge of his crew, he needs to keep a clear head on Christmas Day. "No, I can't get too merry," he laughs. "I can have a toast or two, but drinking's pretty much a no-no." He does the family rounds in the morning and finished off the day with a big celebration at his place. But while he's judicious when it comes to his alcohol intake, he looks forward to a big feed. "Fortunately I can eat whatever I want."
Brent has been a Coastguard volunteer since 1995, working his way up the ranks and earning his stripes through the Coastguard's stringent training schedule. If there is an emergency on-sea, it only takes him 12 minutes to get from home in Island Bay to the base in Evans Bay.
He and his team of eight crew the boat on a rotating basis on weekends and public holidays throughout the year. He is passionate about his role, and isn't fazed by Wellington's treacherous seas. "I really love being on the sea when it's rough and windy," he says.
But as a skipper he has to be sure that his crew and the boat are safe. "I need to be sensible and make sure I'm not putting anyone in danger."
Christmas Day tends to be quiet but Boxing Day is a different story. "Lots of people go out on their boats on Boxing Day," he says. Fortunately, not too many of the call-outs are related to seasonal high-jinks. "We mainly give people tows if their batteries run out."
Volunteer for Coastguard Auckland
Day job: Technical adviser for dangerous goods
Involvement with Coastguard: Since way back in the ‘70s!
“I was in Wellington back in 1968 when the Wahine disaster happened. There was a huge storm in Cook Strait and the ferry foundered, killing 51 people. We spent all day in a little boat, rowing and rescuing people. It was a terrible time but it made me want to get out there and help people in the water, which is why I went on to become one of the founding members of Coastguard Wellington.
“I’d always had a yearning for the sea, had always sailed and had a stint as a sea scuba instructor, so it seemed like the right thing to do – to get out there. After a while in Wellington, I moved to Auckland and Coastguard Auckland, where I’ve been since.
“I’ve been involved with most aspects of the organisation, most notably as a qualified search and rescue tutor with Coastguard Boating Education, which saw me receive the tutor of the year award a few years ago. I guess you could say I’ve had my fingers in a lot of pies; I like to give back and thoroughly enjoy training and responding to call-outs in the city.
“We get a lot of young crews coming through who have a thirst for knowledge and I like being a part of that. It’s also important that we keep our training up to speed so we feel comfortable and confident to put ourselves in any position and know we can handle it. That includes boat-handling skills; firefighting, mechanical and people skills; fitness, swimming; and technology changes.
“Since working with Coastguard, I’ve been involved in too many incidents to count, most of which have had happy endings with new members signing up to Coastguard. I remember rescuing a woman who had a heart attack on a vessel near Ponui Island. We were met en route back to Auckland by a rescue helper with spare oxygen and then by a paramedic and the woman was taken away to hospital. Some weeks later we got an extremely nice thank you letter, which made us feel very humble.
“There’s a real feeling of satisfaction you get from helping people in their moment of need that makes you do it. It’s great to be able to put all of our training into practice so we can operate safely and look after the crews and the boat.”
Volunteer for Coastguard Manawatu
Day job: Manager of Foxton Mitre 10
Involvement with Coastguard: Since 2008
“My husband was already a member of Coastguard Manawatu when he told me that they needed a secretary and asked if I would be keen to step in. So I gave it a go, thoroughly enjoyed it and, after a year as secretary, I also joined the crew. Since then, I’ve been full on!
“I love being out on the water and working with a fantastic unit and crew to help other people. There’s a lot of training involved in Coastguard and I’ve still got heaps to do. I really enjoy the fact that I’m learning and challenging myself every day. Coastguard helps to put me out of my comfort zone and when I succeed and get it right I get a huge feeling of achievement.
“I’m lucky that my husband and I volunteer together, as it means we are involved in something together which means a lot to us. As one of only two women in the crew, working with all the guys is great fun and I’m always learning from them. They’re always ready to help us out and are a really good bunch of people. I was thrilled in training recently when we all had a go at parking the rescue vessel up against the wharf and I managed it first time.
“Coastguard can be hard work, and can make for a long day but I always seem to get it done and it has extremely high returns when you know you’ve played a part in helping to save someone.
“Fortunately, most of our call-outs are for flat batteries, tows and things like that. We also check on floating objects like logs just in case they’re kayakers. Most of our rescues are success stories – in fact I’ve only seen one unhappy ending. Once, we went searching for hours at night and into the early hours of the morning after a fishing boat sank near the Manawatu River mouth. One man died, which was extremely sad for everyone involved. I was nominated for the Central Region Volunteer Award In 2011 for displaying outstanding dedication and service to Coastguard Manawatu. I love everything about Coastguard– it’s all about “saving lives at sea” and I am very proud to be a part of it.”
Volunteer for Coastguard Clyde
Day job: Mechanic, owner and operator
Involvement with Coastguard: Since 2004
“As president of Coastguard Clyde, I’m basically in charge of making sure everything runs smoothly. There’s training, maintenance, tutoring, getting out on the boat and being a general dogsbody. It varies quite drastically sometimes and that’s what keeps it so much fun.
“I joined the organisation after working for the fire brigade for many years and getting frustrated with the way things were being organised. I felt that the water side of things wasn’t being run as well or professionally as it could be, so me and a few other people from the local boat club went and did our own thing. At the end of the day, it all boils down to my passion for the water and being able to help people out and about on the water. That’s how we started in 2004 and I haven’t looked back since.
“My favourite thing about Coastguard is the training, meeting new people and introducing them to the rules of boating and helping to educate them about the water. We get all people from all walks of life and to be able to go out there and show them how to keep safe on the water is a great feeling. It’s also my job to keep up interest and morale. I like to mix up the training and change things around, so that just when they think they have got hold of everything, we challenge them again.
“What makes our organisation unique here in Clyde is that we operate a lot on the Clutha River. That means some of our rescues can be very prolonged, and sometimes we’ve been out searching the river for three to four days on end. Most of our rescues are looking for people who are missing or overdue, or heading out to pick up injured people from the cycle track that runs alongside the river.
“I love being able to help out a small community and do what I can to prevent accidents from happening. My main challenge is getting the water safety message out there to people; sometimes that can be as basic as reminding them to wear their lifejacket or to tell someone where they’re going and when they’re coming back. As long as we continue to drum in the message then I’m happy.”
Inspired by these stories? Coastguard is always looking for new volunteers to join the amazing crew - Find out how to apply.
While our volunteers are capable of extraordinary things, they can’t do it alone. As a charity, only 12% of our funding comes from the Government so without your help it’s impossible for our volunteers to save lives on the water, help them out by making a donation today.