SAFETY FIRST: Skipper Les Czislowski, vice commodore Jill Barclay, commodore John Smith and operations manager Dave Marshman.
SAFETY FIRST: Skipper Les Czislowski, vice commodore Jill Barclay, commodore John Smith and operations manager Dave Marshman. Alistair Brightman

Up close with your water lifeline

LAST year the local service, based at Urangan Harbour, carried out more than 200 rescues in waters between Woodgate and Sandy Cape on Fraser Island.

Made up of 100 volunteers, they worked a combined 25,000 hours in 2017, and all for the love of it.

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Vice commodore Jill Barclay said there was no real typical day at the VMR and, with government funding making up less than 10percent of their annual running costs ($275,000 a year), they sure do a lot of work on their behalf.

They work closely with Hervey Bay's Water Police, Queensland Ambulance Service, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and Surf Life Saving Queensland.

"A radio operator comes in about 5.30 every morning, so the radio is operational from 6 in the morning until 6 in the night," Jill said.

"Then we have an after-hours operator who picks up the overnight calls ... from the water police or Queensland Ambulance.

"For some reason medivacs tend to happen after-hours, they call us, and then the radio operator calls out the crew and then we come in and do the job."

Commodore John Smith said their response time was about 20 to 30 minutes to leave the base.

"Most of the time there's not many crew on the base, because they're volunteers, so we call them in at the time when we get a rescue," he said.

Skipper Les Czislowski said a lot of the responsibility rested on the skipper's shoulders, assessing the risk level on each job.

"At the end of the day, it's only the people on the boats that we care about and ... boats may become collateral damage," he said.

Each day these volunteers put their lives at risk. Jill said among some of the most harrowing rescues was a midnight callout to rescue a seasick sailor at Arch Cliff.

"He just wanted to get out of the boat," she said.

"At 3am it was rolling from gutter to gutter (side to side) and we just couldn't get alongside it."

Operations manager Dave Marshman was on call that night and said the rough seas meant they couldn't get within 50m of him.

"We said we would get someone to come back the next morning, when things may have settled down," he said.

"He'd actually left one of his sea cocks open from his toilet and it was taking on water but, because he was so sea sick, he wasn't thinking clearly."

John, who was tasked to go out the next morning, said during a rebrief on the boat that morning, one crew member suggested that he jump into the water and swim over to it.

"Before we could go to the next step, and I was going to say no ... he was in the water," John said.

"It was one to 1.5m seas up there and it was quite dangerous. But it all worked out in the end."

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Jill said, on average, the service would receive three call-outs each week.

"You get a really nice weekend, Saturday or a Sunday, or a public holiday and you get a lot of boats on the water," she said. "So, it's not unusual for us to have three or four call-outs in just one day but, when you average out our statistics, it's about three a week."

Given the hours worked, it's no surprise the boats suffer damage, and it's not an easy task to find money to replace them.

Their current vessel, now 17 years in service, has worked seven years past its used-by date and VMR has only raised about $600,000 of the $1.2 million needed to replace it.

Designed with oxygen, a permanent stretcher and space to house another two on board, as well as medications for medivacs, a new vessel will make their job to save lives easier.

They can be commended for raising just about all the money themselves, through memberships and tireless fundraising events, including everything from open days, sausage sizzles, boat shows and an upcoming new event, a corporate golf day.

You can even have VMR spread your loved one's ashes on the water for a relatively small donation of $250.

The service has encouraged Fraser Coast boat owners to take advantage of their membership.

Of the more than 10,000 registered boat owners in the Fraser Coast region, only 10 to 15 per cent are VMR members.

Jill says they may not be aware that for just $90 a year they can receive a service like that offered to car owners by the RACQ.

"Our SOS membership gives them two free tows, up to $500 worth of our fuel, each year," she said.

"We do a quarterly magazine that goes out. We also have free information sessions here, where they learn a bit of local knowledge and things to be aware of out there on the water, weather conditions and some fishing spots.

"If they've got a VHF radio out there in their boats, they should also have a radio licence to use that radio."

According to the team, this membership offering not only raises vital funds for the organisation, it helps them do their job more effectively.

Jill says members can easily log on when they go out and already have all their details on file, but anyone can do so - it's just a longer process the first time without membership.

"We would encourage people to log on with us when they go out there on the water," she said.

"It just saves a lot of hassles in the long run."

If you would like more information on VMR operation, or how to help this multi-faceted service, visit Volunteer Marine Rescue online.