BON VOYAGE: Bernie Gabriel reflects on his time in the Marine Rescue NSW Service.
BON VOYAGE: Bernie Gabriel reflects on his time in the Marine Rescue NSW Service. Aisling Brennan

Marine Rescue leads to life of memories at sea

FOR more than half a century, Bernie Gabriel has been keeping a watchful eye over the ocean ensuring people's safety with the help of the Marine Rescue New South Wales unit.

As a foundation member and retired director of the Northern Rivers Marine Rescue unit, Bernie has put himself on the line to make sure people make it back to shore safely.

In 1964 Bernie, who ran a hire boat company in Tweed for many years, was involved in creating the marine rescue unit that calls Point Danger home.

"There was a need here for a rescue unit,” Bernie said.

"I had a situation where I had some hire boats and one of our hire boats almost went over the bar when they took the wrong turning.

"It if it hadn't been for Jack Evans having a sun bake on the riverbank, he was there and paddled out on a surf ski and got them.

"That led me to believe that we should have something here.”

Taking inspiration from a volunteer marine rescue service in England, Bernie and about 12 other boating enthusiasts decided to create the first rescue unit on the Tweed and Gold Coast.

"We were based down at my marine business in the boat harbour,” Bernie said.

"The whole thing's gone from a couple of guys sitting in a boat shed down in the boat harbour at Tweed into a unit (at Point Danger) today that's considered one of the best.”

Bernie Gabriel puts plans in place on how to cross the Tweed Bar.
Bernie Gabriel puts plans in place on how to cross the Tweed Bar. Crystal Spencer

However, Bernie admits male attitudes of the 1960s meant it took a few years before boaters decided to accept any help.

"At the time, we had a lot of boats around here and no one was going out to do rescue work,” Bernie said.

"We used to do a fair few (rescues).

"There used to be a lot of little boats out there, they'd be forever conking out and they'd usually tow themselves back in.

"You're talking about an era when men were men and they would tie their life boats on top of their trawlers, they bolted them down so when the trawler went down the life boat went down with it.”

Technology itself even caused problems, as radars were not available like they are today.

But that didn't stop Bernie and his team, which included the help of veteran pilot Chris Lanham, who flew the first aeroplane out of the Tweed.

Bernie Gabriel gets ready to jump into action as a volunteer for the Marine Rescue NSW.
Bernie Gabriel gets ready to jump into action as a volunteer for the Marine Rescue NSW. Crystal Spencer

"If we were searching in the wrong direction, because we didn't have any radio communication and we could only do viewing from the land, (Chris) would take to the air and he'd find them,” Bernie said.

"If we were heading (the wrong way), he'd fly over the boat, make two circles and then fly to the direction of where the boat was.

"(Chris) used to fly over us as low as he could, almost at stalling speed in his little plane, and he'd put messages, wrap them up, attach them to a bolt and as he'd fly over us he'd throw them down into the back of the boat.

"Nowadays, I can go into the communication centre and press a button to find out where exactly the boat is, I know exactly what distance he is from shore, I'll know exactly the direction it's at, I'll know the wind drift, I know where our boat is and I can tell you exactly how long it'll take us to get there for the rescue.”

While he may be stepping away from Marine Rescue NSW, Bernie said his years volunteering had brought great joy to his life and he encouraged others to join.

"You'll sit here hour after hour and nothing happens,” he said.

"The boat crews are on standby, are on call, and nothing happens.

"But the one time you get a genuine emergency and you're able to offer assistance that's what keeps us there.

"There was a young family once who were sinking... and I've never seen two more happier people in mum and dad then when we pulled them on board.”

But Bernie admitted he has concerns about the future of volunteering because of the amount of time needed to commit to the project.

"We used to be 140 strong but now I'd say we're just under 100, without seeing the figures,” he said.

"It's a commitment but today where everyone has to meet a massive mortgage, they just don't have time.

"I think we'll reach the stage that we will be paying people for their time.”



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