In July of this year, a Mayday was radioed from a catamaran 11 miles off the coast of Anegada. The boat was sinking, and the nine people on board needed help. Virgin Islands Search and Rescue (VISAR), with the assistance of a couple of other boats, got the passengers to dry land and then coordinated medical and crisis care for them. That’s just one example of what VISAR is called to do every week.
“The majority of the calls we go to these days are medically oriented, such as a heart attack, a jelly fish sting, or an accident where someone has sustained an injury,” says VISAR President, Phil Aspinall. “Fortunately, we get very few tragic accidents.”
When the pagers go off, VISAR volunteers are ready, knowing that the types of accidents will be as varied as the people who occupy the boats. Although they don’t get paid for their time and expertise, they are relied upon for their crucial role in keeping the waters safe around the BVI and the USVI. It can be a balancing act for the volunteers.
“We all have regular jobs. When someone is in danger we drop what we’re doing, go out on a call, and then get back to our lives.”
In 1988, the year VISAR was founded, volunteers went out on six calls. Over the years, the numbers have increased steadily, as has the volunteer staff. Now 50 people are on a rotating roster to respond to the two or three calls that come in each week. Nothing short of a hurricane will keep them from helping people. Efforts are often coordinated with the US Coast Guard, Royal BVI Police, the BVI
Customs, the Crisis Intervention Team, BVI Medical Authorities, or even nearby boats.
One of the biggest things that sets VISAR apart from the other organizations listed is funding.
“Most people think that we are government funded. They are surprised to learn that we are a charitable organization and are totally funded from donations and fund raising events. We rely largely on the good will of people who sometimes contribute as a method of saying thanks.”
VISAR’s annual operating costs run about $100,000 a year. One of the largest income boosters comes from the ‘Dollar per Person’ campaign. Virtually all charter companies have agreed to contribute a dollar to the program for each of their guests. Aspinall says this method would fund VISAR completely if every chartering visitor to the BVI made a contribution, but revenue collected reflects the donations of only about a third of all guests.
Currently, VISAR is in the middle of a capital campaign to raise a million dollars over the next several years. “We have to raise that by banging on doors,” says Aspinall.
Part of the money will be used to add another boat to the two vessels already in operation. But a new, well-equipped boat alone will cost about $300,000 — three times the annual operating budget of the charity.
“It’s funny, but the focus of our volunteers is not fund raising, they would gladly put themselves in danger to help someone else but find it difficult to ask people for money,” says Aspinall. “Most of our volunteers just want to get out there and help people.”
To find out more about VISAR, log onto their website at www.visar.org