Club Marine

By John Fernando

Heroism can be defined in many ways. My dad always said true heroism is about being a responsible human being. Being responsible to oneself, to one’s work and to society. This aphorism, in combination with a high dosage of commitment and passion perfectly describes the Mornington Peninsula’s Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) service.

VMR Mornington, for the second consecutive year, has won the Boating Industry of Australia’s (BIA) Safety Initiative Award nominated by Victoria Water police. The 22-member team has been cited for its benchmark rapid response time of eight to twelve minutes on marine rescue call-outs, its team of high-calibre volunteers, for the excellent training methodologies that have been put in place, their reliability and for the high quality of its equipment. They have taken the top honours in a state that boasts 160 unaffiliated marine rescue organisations.

The guys who make up the team at VMR Mornington are, in my opinion, true Aussie heroes who dedicate their time and energy towards lending a helping hand to boaties, fishermen, surfers, swimmers and anyone else who may be in distress at sea. In all my years of international journalism, I have yet to come across a nicer bunch of blokes who are willing to risk their lives or to go so far out of their own comfort zones, literally, to help others in the community.

VMR Mornington was established 24 years ago (June 1980), following a tragic accident off Mt. Martha.

A 43-year old father of three, Paul Darbyshire, drowned on a Saturday afternoon when his recreational fishing trip went all wrong. His drowning was sadly witnessed by residents and police officers on the coast. A rescue boat took one hour to reach him, by which time he was deceased.

Following that tragic drowning, concerned members of the community in conjunction with local police, initiated a program to establish a 24-hour rapid response marine rescue unit manned by volunteers (fishermen, boaties, businessmen and other citizens) from the locality. Over the years, VMR Mornington has become recognised state-wide as the finest marine rescue operation, with its hallmarks being that of a very high rapid response time to call-outs and a team of passionate rescuers.

Although its creation was initiated by a tragic accident, VMR Mornington has gone onto make an indelible and inspiring mark on society. The service has rescued numerous people from life-threatening situations whilst out at sea. Averaging 80-100 call outs per year, the service does everything from saving lives to towing crippled boats back to safety. The Victoria Water Police have recognised VMR Mornington as an essential cog in the peninsula’s marine safety apparatus. In fact, the level of service that VMR Mornington offers is second only to that of the Water Police.

“The history of VMR Mornington begins with a sad start, going back to when a couple of local fishermen were onboard a vessel that capsized within one mile of shore,” said Ross Burriss, a member with over 20 years experience and a former president of VMR Mornington. “Nobody was around to rescue them. There was no marine rescue service nearby, and people saw him drowning just 400 yards from the shore. We wanted to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Initially VMR Mornington began its operations with a boat named after the victim (the Darbyshire). Presently its fleet consists of a 7.2 metre Noosa Cat, a purpose-built boat that functions as the first-strike vessel. Equipped with two 200-horsepower outboards, it can generate 48 knots at top speed. Christened The Leader, after its sponsor (Leader Newspapers), it is replete with the best Search And Rescue (SAR) equipment available. Denis Janosa, vice president and former training officer with VMR Mornington, cited the fact that apart from the high-calibre of its members, the organisation decided from the onset that wherever possible they would purchase only the very best in equipment, thus insuring safety and reliability. This has held them in good stead, especially during times of bad weather.

The second vessel in its fleet is a slightly smaller twin-hull Noosa Cat named Darbyshire II, which at 6.7 metres is capable of generating the same speed. The Darbyshire I and II were christened by the widow of the drown victim. Ross was instrumental in raising almost $80,000 to fund the purchase of Darbyshire II, with a further $60,000 grant received from the Victorian Government through Marine Safety Victoria. Ongoing funding is still a major issue, with fuel costs running up to $10,000 per year. Some recent state government funding has been a welcome fillip though. Apart from being on-call all year round 24 hours a day, the VMR Mornington team also participates in fund-raising activities, including regular barbecues. For the most part, the organisation depends on the generosity of members of the public and the business community to help make their cause a viable reality.

“There are costs involved in running the boats weekly, and for training our team of existing operational members and new recruits,” explained Sasha Sergejew, secretary of VMR Mornington. “It all adds up.”

In 1998, the service initiated the purchase of a new purpose-built rescue vessel and whilst in Queensland they learnt valuable lessons from the highly successful VMR operation there. They decided to adopt its modus operandi and the Mornington Community Bay Rescue Service changed its name to the Volunteer Marine Rescue Service Inc.

Sean Whelan, training officer at VMR said, “We each carry pagers and can be contacted at anytime of the day or night. We follow a very well thought-out system, where we go to the base and assign our name tags to the specific responsibilities for that mission. There is minimal talk or fuss. Everything operates smoothly and with the highest degree of efficiency. Rapid response time is vital to what we do. One of our greatest strengths is that we are able to have our boats on the water and ready for action within minutes of being called to action.”

The moment the members show up at base on an emergency call response, they contact the Victoria Water Police for information on their call out. Up until then, they are unaware of where and what their mission entails.

I was invited to travel with this group of amiable and inspiring men for a simulated call out recently. Despite it being a cold wintry Sunday morning, several of the members appeared very eager to embark on a simulation of the real thing. They were cheerful and enthusiastic as any group of rescuers anywhere. Their professionalism is highly-evident in the way they run the show. Most of the seasoned rescuers have had the sobering responsibility of hauling up fatalities from the sea on many occasions. Denis mentioned that in the years between 1999 and 2002, as many as 40 people have drowned at sea in Victoria, with seven of the deaths occurring this year alone.

The service has the correct protocols to deal with the kind of tragedies that they come across. Counsellors are on hand to provide any assistance when necessary. VMR Mornington also has two paramedics as members, both of whom have saved many lives. VMR Mornington members are also strong advocates of commonsense safety precautions, such as the use of Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs) as do other marine rescue services and government departments.

“VMR Mornington is made up of a group of dedicated people who keep the operations going 24/7,” said Sean. “Most are commercially-qualified with a minimum Coxswain standard.”

Sean is the ideal role model to the eager new recruits who are enlisted to the comprehensive training programs being conducted on Tuesday evenings between 7:30pm and 10:30pm. His calm demeanour, wealth of knowledge and lifelong association with the sea makes him a brilliant training officer. His commitment to the service is without doubt one of the driving forces of VMR Mornington today. During the simulated call out run that Sasha and Sean organised for Club Marine, the latter took time off from being at his wife and newborn son Thomas’ side to drive Darbyshire II along the coastline of the peninsula that morning. Immediately after the two-hour mission, Sean rushed back to the hospital to be with his loved ones.

A long-standing member of VMR Mornington is Mick Matthews. “One of the primary goals that we have set at this stage is to expand the size of our headquarters,” said Mick. “We want to construct an additional storey to the building and expand the base outward as well. This will help us to house both boats in the building. At present, there’s only enough space for one boat. The land for our building is government-owned, whilst materials were donated by local businesses. The construction was carried out totally by members donating their time and energy.”

Such is the capability of VMR Mornington that the Water Police have openly recognised them as the fastest-response marine rescue service in Victoria. After three men drowned in a four-week period whilst trying to swim to shore, VMR Mornington launched a safety awareness program entitled ‘Stay with your boat’. Marine Safety Victoria was so impressed that they ran with it by producing thousands of pamphlets on the ‘Stay with your boat’ theme. “It is easier for rescue services to locate a boat than it is to find a lone person out at sea,” said Mick.

Several anecdotes the team members shared with us are nothing short of inspiring. According to Ross, on one occasion a young male windsurfer was rescued at sea after he had been lost for several hours and had given up all hope of rescue. He had later confided to his mum that he was about to jump into the water and try to swim the eight kilometres to shore, when a hand from behind grabbed him just in the nick of time and hoisted him to the safety of an awaiting VMR Mornington boat that had come to his rescue. There are numerous occasions when the rescuers had come to the aid of distressed boaties. According to Denis, the majority of casualties at sea are of men aged between 25 and 50 years of age, most commonly during the afternoon hours and onboard boats that are less than six metres in length.

“The Water Police have to be very confident in whom they task for marine rescue operations,” said Denis. “It’s for this reason that a report (conducted by Ernst and Young) was commissioned to assess the viability and capability of volunteer organisations to assist Victoria Police. During the meetings that discussed the report, “it was a nice embarrassment,” said Dennis, “that VMR Mornington were constantly referred to when an example of quality performance and response times were discussed. He said it was obvious that VMR Mornington was being used as the benchmark service.”

The team at VMR Mornington were quick to point out that the organisation was autonomous and operated independently of outside interference and interests. They maintain the argument that the best of the best should be able to operate within their own locality or anywhere at any given time. They often have the first-line first-response to calls with Leader whilst Darbyshire II provides valuable back-up for rescue missions at sea. The pool of experience and expertise that they can bring to bear is impressive and runs into the hundreds of years. This bodes well, especially when they are called to respond to serious accidents where the likelihood of fatalities is very high. According to Ross, each individual member reacts differently to a serious accident or drown victim. Some of the members react with silence while others maybe garrulous or highly-expressive in dealing with such difficult circumstances.

“We have also embarked on a unique new education program aimed at creating greater awareness amongst the youth on marine safety issues,” said Ross. “It’s very hands-on and we did an outreach program where our boats were taken on location to schools and the children had a first-hand experience of marine safety issues and equipment. We also gave safety talks, especially about PFDs, to kindergarten and preparatory school students, whilst our program aimed at secondary colleges also had demonstrations of the use of flares. This was in addition to talks about safe boating activity and the issue of alcoholism and boating.”

If history is anything to go by, then the initiatives and best practices of VMR Mornington are likely to have an ongoing positive impact on marine safety in Victoria as a whole. VMR Mornington was the first in the state to use twin-hull rescue vessels. According to Denis, no one had thought that they were good enough for this but now many use them. In 2003, VMR also conducted a free boat safety checks program in conjunction with Marine Safety Victoria in Mornington aimed at preventing accidents. This was in addition to free hand-outs of safety products and boating safety advice. In combination with their rapid response capability, high standards of rescue, the commitment and passion of its members, VMR Mornington is likely to lead the way in marine safety and rescue for a long time to come. The gauntlet has also been laid down to other rescue services to follow suit and raise the bar on their own operations.

Little doubt then that the Victoria Water Police assigns some of the most important marine rescue tasks to VMR Mornington, knowing full well that this group of true Aussie heroes will come to the rescue of all those who may be in urgent need of assistance in the vast open of the southern waters. Hopefully, they will continue to do so for a long time, unfazed by the numerous challenges they may face.

If perhaps as an afterthought of my visit to VMR Mornington can be penned down in one word, it has to be the word hospitality. Whether it is the enthusiasm of a fresh recruit like Chris Sperway, who invited me back to Mornington to enjoy the snapper fishing season, or the seasoned salty air of confidence and reflective nature of the more mature Ross Burriss and Denis Janosa, their hospitality was never in short supply. I can only imagine the many victims they have saved being treated to that same characteristic hospitality and concern.

VMR Mornington has announced the establishment of a charitable gift fund through Perpetual Trustees – one that will benefit the community as a whole. Perpetual’s Charitable Gift Fund is a ready made vehicle which: simplifies charitable giving maximises tax savings provides an ongoing benefit to the community.

A Gift Fund can benefit VMR Mornington as they are an authorised charity and is fully tax deductible. For further information, or to obtain a brochure, please contact Perpetual Philanthropic Foundations on 1800 501 227 or at