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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 www.perpetual.com.au/pcgf