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HomeAntigua and BarbudaAntiguaThey Have Your Back! Volunteer Marine Rescue & Safety Organizations

They Have Your Back! Volunteer Marine Rescue & Safety Organizations

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There are public governmental and private sector marine organizations that keep boaters safe at sea. It might be in operations like search and rescue (SAR), or towing a disabled craft to shore. However, the Caribbean, like other areas of the world, is also blessed with very capable volunteer organizations that in many cases make life and death differences. 

Courtesy ABSAR
Courtesy ABSAR

A good example, and one of many, is the remarkable rescue that happened on October 13, 2014, as Hurricane Gonzalo bore down on St. Martin.

Seven members of SNSM St. Martin, the local branch of the Paris headquartered Les Sauveteurs en Mer (SNSM), left their homes and families and stood ready to help. Despite alert messages, many sailors in bays around Sandy Ground, Marigot, and Grand Case remained on board their vessels. Emergency calls for man overboards and vessel groundings started rolling in as winds rose, visibility deteriorated and waves shook their rescue vessel, with both engines ultimately lost. The trained SNSM St. Martin volunteers jumped into the water with lifesaving equipment at the ready and helped to get survivors safely ashore to the beach. When the storm passed, more than 20 boats were stranded in Marigot Bay alone and 31 people were rescued or assisted. For this, members of the SNSM St. Martin received a certificate from the International Maritime Organization for their acts of selflessness and sense of duty.

USCGAUX Operational Program.
USCGAUX Operational Program.

Seafaring Volunteer Organizations

SNSM St. Martin, created in 2001 with sixty members and two vessels, is one of several volunteer marine organizations in the Caribbean.

“Our primary mission is to rescue people,” says Nicolas Obry, secretary. “The crew members also go out for towing missions.”

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Another organization is Antigua & Barbuda Search and Rescue (ABSAR), founded in 1997 after an unsuccessful rescue of two Hobie Cat sailors sailing back to Antigua from Grenada. Today, the organization has a medic station at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina and treats over 1000 cases annually.

“ABSAR is run 24/7 and 365 days a year by a group of volunteers with extensive medical, marine, aviation, and firefighting backgrounds. We currently have a 28’ Protector RIB and a 27’ Revenger RIB for our rescues and event support,” says Jonathan Cornelius, director, who in 2020 was one of 10 nominees for the MaritimeMT Crew Awards lifetime achievement category. 

VISAR Training Junior Cadets. Courtesy VISAR
VISAR Training Junior Cadets. Courtesy VISAR

On May 21, 2014, ABSAR was part of a multinational SAR operation following the explosion of a motor vessel carrying freight between Antigua and Barbuda. Three survivors of four missing persons were successfully found paddling in a small inflatable boat and taken to the hospital.

Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR), in the British Virgin Islands, started in the 1980s to fill a critical gap in search and rescue services, according to Phil Aspinall, operations manager. “While statistically, most rescue organizations operate on a 90% Search and 10% Rescue, we are the opposite. Consequently, our crews are highly trained in Advanced First Aid, and around half of them are the equivalent of EMTs. Uniquely, we have designed and equipped our vessels to be able to provide a stable platform enabling CPR to be performed while underway at speed.”

The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGAUX), the volunteer arm of the U.S. Coast Guard, has several flotillas in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Public education in boating and seamanship is one of our primary initiatives. Each year in May, May 20-26, 2023 this coming year, our flotillas host educational activities for the public as part of the Safe Boating Campaign,” says Kenneth Vargas, division commander of the USCG Auxiliary flotilla in Aguadilla. 

USCGAUX Operational Program: from left to right, Jaime Domenech and Kenneth Vargas
USCGAUX Operational Program: from left to right, Jaime Domenech and Kenneth Vargas

Safety on the Sea

Years of experience in these organizations have made leaders well-qualified to offer the most important advice for safety on the sea.

“Always wear your lifejacket,” says VISAR’s Aspinall. “When Grandpa fell out of his boat in the old days, he got wet! With the speed and power of today’s vessels, when you fall out it’s like hitting concrete. There’s a chance you could be knocked unconscious. Better to be floating when we get there than to have sunk.”

To ensure the best possible rescue, ABSAR’s Cornelius recommends also carrying a working VHF and a registered EPIRB.

Have a ‘float plan’ so that someone is expecting you home and knows where you have gone, so that if you don’t return, not only can the alarm be raised, but we also know where to go and find you, adds VISAR’s Aspinall. “If the plan changes, update them.”

Make sure your vessel is safe, says the USCGAUX Vargas. “In the complimentary Inspection Program, boat safety checks are made at the request of the owner or operator of the vessel and are free of charge. Once they pass the inspection, a Seal of Safety Decal is attached to the boat and is valid for one calendar year. With this seal, it is accredited that at the time of the inspection the vessel complied with federal and state regulations of safety equipment and that they were in good condition of use. These inspections are conducted by specially trained and qualified USCGAUX personnel which are certified as Vessel Examiners.”

Courtesy ABSAR
Courtesy ABSAR

Support is Lifesaving

The best way for recreational boaters to support these volunteer organizations is with time and/or donations. 

“We meet every Monday at 6 p.m. in Tortola at the VISAR Base in Road Reef Marina and on a Tuesday in Virgin Gorda at our VG Yacht Harbour Base. Here you can meet the crew and volunteer to be a crew member. We only ask that you can swim. We will teach you everything else. Or you can volunteer in one of our support roles such as fundraising, or, offering to be available with your boat if we are involved in a protracted search and need ‘eyes on the water’,” says Aspinall, visar.org 

U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers can learn more and join a flotilla in their area at join.cgaux.org/join.php 

Donations that are needed, adds ABSAR’s Cornelius, “are monetary, equipment, medical supplies, and your time.” www.absar.org 

The SNSM St. Martin also relies on donations. Earlier this year, the station opened a shop at its base in Marigot. Proceeds from shop purchases allow the station to buy new equipment. Volunteers are also needed, says Obry. www.facebook.com/SNSM.SXM. “All goodwill is accepted, whether it’s knowledge of marine motors, marine electricity, or simply experience as a sailor. If you have the will, you will always be welcome.”

Party with a Mermaid and Raise Money for ABSAR

New SNSM Station in Saint Barth

Successful Sea Rescue by SNSM of St. Martin, Maritime Agencies and a Passing Container Ship

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Carol_Bareuther
Carol_Bareuther
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.
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