Coastal heroes

Liliana Engelhardt | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 4

A fixture on Australian waterways, they’re the unsung heroes who work tirelessly to keep boaties safe: the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard.

The result of Reader’s Digest Australia’s 2013 ‘Most Trusted Professions’ poll put rescue volunteers in third place, close behind firefighters and paramedics, who share the top spot.

And at this year’s National Volunteer Week in May, more than six million Australians – that’s 36 per cent of the adult population – who contribute more than 700 million hours of community service by volunteering, were honoured in the largest celebration of volunteers and volunteerism in Australia.

The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association (AVCGA) was also eager to say ‘Thanks a Million’ to all Coast Guard members around the nation during the week. The Coast Guard counts over 3000 members, all of them volunteers. In 2012, those members went to sea on 2725 operations to assist the boating public and rescued 6388 people from a wide variety of predicaments, some lifethreatening. Its radio rooms handled 262,554 radio calls and, with boat crews, logged 540,000 hours of volunteer work. They assisted approximately $155m-worth of vessels and used over $500,000-worth of fuel in Coast Guard vessels.

Like all charity and volunteer-based groups, the Coast Guard is reliant on grants, sponsorships and donations. One way local flotillas raise funds is by handing out the Club Marine-sponsored life rings in return for a gold coin donation. Readers may recognise the bright orange inflatable toy life rings, which have become a favourite souvenir at boat shows nation-wide.


In the early 1960s, Beaumaris Motor Yacht Club, on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, ran safety patrols for the benefit of its members. During a meeting in December 1960, ‘small-boat safety’ was discussed. In February 1961, the club’s operations officer, Ted Madden, sent a letter to the US Coast Guard requesting further information following an article he had read in the Saturday Evening Post about the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary. The reply came from no less than Captain Richard Baxter, USCG Chief Director of the Auxiliary, and included manuals, bibliography, leaflets and an eight-page lesson plan.

At the time, there weren’t any organisations in Australia that dealt with small-boat safety. Encouraged by the information they had received from the US, the group from Beaumaris decided to take action to improve pleasure-boating safety. Their objective was to instruct and educate boat owners in safe boating practices and to “promote safety by example”. With this, the Australian Coast Guard was formed.

The first order of the Australian Coast Guard was drafted on September 14, 1961, and a provisional flotilla, VF1 Melbourne, was formed. The first Public Instruction Course was held soon after on November 8, and a National Board formed on December 18, 1961. By August 1962, eight flotillas had been established in Victoria.

In April, 1963, the name was changed to the Australian Coast Guard Auxiliary, with an insignia proudly displaying an eagle and anchor.

In September 1963, a unit was formed in South Australia, with New South Wales and Queensland following in May 1967.

Today, the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association (AVCGA) is governed by a National Board, which controls the principles and policies of the organisation and a series of eight squadrons, which in turn manage 52 flotillas. It is present in all Australian states and territories, except Western Australia.

Since 2008, Ray Campbell (left) has been at the helm of the AVCGA as its National Commodore. A highly decorated member who joined the Coast Guard at VF2 St Kilda in 1983, he has since held several notable positions, including Commodore Victorian Squadron and Chair of the State Council Victoria. Campbell has repeatedly been lauded for his achievements, with his implementation of numerous expansion programs resulting in Coast Guard Victoria becoming a service leader in its field.


In keeping with its motto ‘safety by all means’ and living by its rule to ‘promote safety by example’ the Coast Guard continues to develop its role as an educator for both its members and the public. A large part of the boating community turns to the Coast Guard for training and advice and, by the same token, knows it’s in good hands because Coast Guard volunteers are all trained to exacting standards. As a nationally accredited and Registered Training Organisation, the Coast Guard offers courses in boat licence training, safe boating, coastal navigation, marine radio, radar and GPS use.

In February this year, the AVCGA launched SafeTrx, an app that enables boaters to register their vessel with the Coast Guard and plan a journey. Once logged, the trip is monitored by AVCGA volunteers around the clock from its Sandringham, Vic, communications headquarters via SafeTrx’s system, which alerts them if the ETA is exceeded.

SafeTrx is an additional tool to VHF radio and emergency beacons, says the AVCGA, especially since mobile devices (and the telecommunications systems that support them) are inherently unreliable.

That the boating public is increasingly taking on-water safety seriously is evidenced by the SafeTrx app’s download rate – in the week following this year’s Melbourne Boat Show, it was downloaded over 1000 times.

The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard encourages all boaters going out to sea, whether for professional reasons, leisure or sport, to let a local flotilla know their plans in advance. Getting to casualties early is key, it says, and utilising the SafeTrx app can get resources on the scene quickly.

For more information about the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard, or to download the SafeTrx app, go to: