Women have always taken up leading roles within the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), but it was Carmen Long who secured herself a place in the history books.
The 52-year-old from Hout Bay became the first woman in the NSRI’s long history to qualify as a Class 1 coxswain.
The South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) coxswain training programme covers five classes of rescue vessel coxswains, or skippers, with Class V allowing operation of a rescue vessel on inland waters such as a dam.
Class 1 qualifies a person to operate rescue vessels more than nine metres in length, but under 25 tonnes and with an inboard diesel-driven engine.
“Not because for over 50 years no woman had achieved the Class 1 rank and it did not mean there were none capable. It was something that no one really considered,” Ms Long said.
She serves as Class 1 Coxswain, training officer and admin person at Station 8 in Hout Bay, one of the busiest NSRI stations due to the bustling fishing harbour and a number of beaches along the coastline popular with water sports enthusiasts.
“Being a Class 1 Coxswain, one is responsible for the decision-making and execution of a rescue operation, and ultimately the safety of your crew on board of your vessel, other crew and vessels involved, as well as the casualties we are assisting,” Ms Long said.
A Class 1 Coxswain also has to be competent to perform any and all of the roles required to safely run a vessel. Some of these roles are helming, navigation, engineering and radar for example.
Ms Long has been an NSRI volunteer for nine years, racking up 730 volunteer hours and counting, but said: “It doesn’t really feel that long.
“There are so many people that I’ve met that have been here forever, that my small nine years feel very little,” she said.
Ms Long was born in Chile and was armed with a desire to help others. She initially wanted to become a paramedic, but said: “In my country, it wasn’t really a career you considered back then, so I studied something else instead. But the will to help never goes away.”
She moved to South Africa in 1999 and in 2009 joined a neighbourhood watch in her area where she ended up doing patrols with current NSRI deputy station commander at Station 8, Sven Gussenhoven.
Ms Long recalled that when the deputy first mentioned he was part of Sea Rescue, she knew right then that she wanted to be a part of it without really knowing what this sea rescue thing was all about.
“When I went to the first meeting, I realised I had so much to learn. But I was inspired by what I saw, I wanted to be part of it, and I was sold right there and then,” she said.
“I think being a volunteer and a rescuer is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, it is not only great to be able to make such a difference in the community and be part of an incredible team, but also you learn much about yourself.”
Having joined the NSRI in September 2011, the seed of becoming a Class 1 Coxswain was planted in 2017 by the then station commander, Lyall Pringle.
“After some consideration, I decided to jump in and started to get ready for the assessment,” Ms Long said.
After hours of studying and practising, Ms Long went on to do the assessment in 2018, but had to redo the engineering oral exam, and so spent more hours in the engine room before passing and obtaining her ticket in February 2019.
“I realised there is absolutely nothing that a woman cannot do, be or achieve. We all have to learn the same things, do the same courses, same task books signed, same amount of hours served, and at the individual level, there are always things we all need to improve and work on. The barriers and issues are in people’s minds, women’s and men’s alike,” Ms Long said.
When asked what crossed her mind when taking on the challenge, she said: “When that option was put in front of me as if it was the most natural and logical next thing to do I thought, why not?”
She encouraged women to follow their goals and achieve them, whether it’s becoming crew, coxswain, medic or a “kick-ass navigator”.
“Don’t deprive yourself of becoming and achieving what you aspire and want to be. All that it is needed is the right support and encouragement. This is teamwork,” Ms Long said.
The NSRI, which is dedicated to saving lives on South African coastal and inland waters, was founded by pioneering woman Patti Price in 1966, following the tragic deaths of fishermen off Still Bay.