Covering an area equivalent to the western seaboard of the United States, Rob Macintosh meets Coastguard Marlborough.
When most people think of the Coastguard, they generally think of crews responding to sinking boats and of people being plucked from the water by a helicopter winch.
While these situations do occur, the reality – especially for the Picton unit – involves responding to a huge range of emergencies, whether it be someone suffering a heart attack on the Queen Charlotte Track or escorting a police armed response team to a remote part of the Sounds.
The unit covers more than 1600 kilometres of coastline around the Sounds and Cook Strait – an area equal to the western seaboard of the United States.
The isolated nature of the Sounds – and the homes that are within it – prompted Coastguard Marlborough to develop a close relationship with St John, because when an emergency call is made from somewhere in the Sounds more than half the time it is a medical emergency.
Now that the two organisations share a brand new home at Picton Marina they have developed a working system they believe is unique in New Zealand in order to deal with the equally unique situation.
"We saw how well we were working together so we thought it made sense to have both headquarters in the same place," said St John operations team manager Tony Cronin.
Coastguard Marlborough member of seven years and skipper Alex Moore said there were as many people living in the Sounds as there were in Picton itself, but without the readily available services.
Coastguard Marlborough president David Brown has also been a member for about seven years. He said the variety of callouts was huge.
"On the Queen Charlotte Track we get three or four callouts a year – people with broken ankles, people falling down hills or off bikes," he said.
"You have people cutting themselves with chainsaws or having heart attacks.
"Once there was a guy chopping pine trees when one fell on his head and shoulders. The helicopter got there after us so we had to climb up 400 metres to him with a stretcher and pull him further up the hill to where the helicopter could land."
David recalled one incident when a laser was being shone into the eyes of ferry captains entering the Sounds.
A police armed defender squad was called out and members of the Coastguard had to transport them to a location believed to be where the laser was coming from.
"They didn't know whether it was a kid with a laser pen or a guy with an armalite rifle," he said.
Picton have about 30 active volunteers, made up of retirees and those who also have day jobs.
Alex, a marine farmer of 15 years, said that in Picton nearly all the volunteers currently or formerly worked on boats.
When an emergency call is made and the Coastguard is required, volunteers' pagers go off and those who can dash to the Picton Marina headquarters.
David said the response was always more than was needed, with an average turnout of between eight and 10 members.
Some go home while the rest throw on their overalls and hurry to the boat which is moored a couple of hundred metres away – often with members of the police, fire service, and St John or the ambulance service.
Last year they won the Performance of the Year award, but David said that training never stopped and they were always looking to improve their skills.
But of course, despite all members being volunteers, the service requires big sums of cash for operational costs.
These first two weeks in May see the national organisation fundraise across the country and this money is pooled to pay for things like training.
However, each Coastguard unit is financially independent and raises money for all its own operational costs.
Coastguard Marlborough have their sights set on a new boat – the medical treatment section of which will be an exact copy of the back of a St John ambulance.
Standing in their way is the $1 million price tag, at least half of which they will start the daunting process of raising in June or July.
But for the people they save and the communities that rely on them, Coastguard Marlborough remains a priceless community asset.
- The Marlborough Express