Port Stephens Marine Rescue seeking new volunteers after busy summer

SAVING LIVES: MArine Rescue Port Stephens unit commander Colin Foote with gift shop manager Sandra Scheuber at the historic Nelson Head site.
SAVING LIVES: MArine Rescue Port Stephens unit commander Colin Foote with gift shop manager Sandra Scheuber at the historic Nelson Head site.

At a time when bushfires and drought dominated the news, the hard working volunteers at Marine Rescue Port Stephens went about their business saving lives on the water.

The 2019-20 summer holiday season was a busy time for the Nelson Bay-based unit, with the 24-hour service taking more than received 50 calls for assistance and rescuing 62 people in the six-week school holiday period starting in the week prior to Christmas.

The unit operates on a budget of $150,000 a year and the good will of volunteers. Both are in short supply.

And while all call-outs all time of the year are treated with the utmost professionalism, it was an incident on the evening of September 6 which will live long in the memories of the rescue crew, when a Bell 'Huey' helicopter crashed into the sea about 3 nautical miles south-east of Anna Bay, killing all five people on board.

Operations officer Richard Pizzuto reported that the response from Marine Rescue Port Stephens was "phenomenally quick" and that a rescue helicopter was already on the scene when the PS31 John Thompson vessel made its way towards the crash site.

"About a mile north of the slick, PS31 came across a large piece of wreckage in the water which seemed to be part of a tail boom assembly ... as the weather conditions worsened, the decision was made for PS31 to discontinue the search in the interests of safety," he reported.

"Days later the mother and brother of the pilot visited the unit and caught up with three of the five crew involved in the search to personally thank them for their efforts. I know I speak for the entire unit when I offer our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims.

"Thankfully, such tragedies as this are extremely few and far between and our stories more often than not have happy endings."

Unit commander Colin Foote said that rescue vessels were called out 28 times in six weeks, as part of the organisation's objective of 'volunteers saving lives on the water'.

"The radio base is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and in January alone we received 1700 radio calls and 1900 phone calls. A total of 700 boats logged on with 1800 people on board," Mr Foote said.

"In addition to the normal busy holiday boating activities, Marine Rescue Port Stephens supported the Lower Hunter and Hunter Valley RFS by providing experienced radio operators to assist at the East Maitland control centre during the bushfire crisis.

"Along with other emergency service organisations, 15 Port Stephens members contributed in excess of 500 hours in support of the RFS."

In order to keep two rescue boats on the water and the radio room operating 24-7, Marine Rescue Port Stephens needs to raise $150,000 a year.

A vital part of this funding is provided by the gift shop at Nelson Head, which is also staffed by volunteers between 9am and 4pm every day selling a wide range of interesting and unique items.

Of the 28 active volunteers, two ladies - Monica Thompson and Shirley Clark - have been part of the team since the shop's opening 37 years ago.

"To keep this vital source of funding operating, additional volunteers and required, particularly anyone with retail and/or electronic cash register experience," said shop manager Sandra Scheuber.

"Apart from the essential fundraising aspect the role is just as much about interacting with visitors who come to Nelson Head for the magnificent view, historic cottage and tea rooms."

Anyone interested in contributing should call the base on (02) 4981 3585.