Cape Town – When we think about Women’s Day, it usually conjures up images of some sort of celebration, but the reality is that many women don’t have the luxury of taking the day off to pamper themselves or be spoilt – especially if their job is to keep others safe.
This Women’s Day, most of the women of Station 16, the National Sea Rescue Institute’s (NSRI) base in Strandfontein, will be on duty doing just that. Instead of a lavish lunch and light entertainment, they will be braving the winter cold to patrol Strandfontein beach.
“This is what we do,” the women from NSRI Station 16 said when asked how they would celebrate the day.
These women are proof that lifesaving, and saving lives, is not necessarily something men are better at than women.
The women of Station 16 see gender as no differentiator. “We, as females, are also able and fit to save lives out at sea,” said crew member Keena Swartbooi, 19.
Swartbooi was a lifeguard candidate at Strandfontein Surf Lifesaving Club when she first became interested in NSRI.
“What drew me to the service is the fact that in September 2015, I lost a family member to the ocean and the Hermanus NSRI crew were the ones that recovered his body, as well as other casualties,” she said.
“This flamed my passion for wanting to join the NSRI and save lives because they gave us a chance to at least mourn the death of my uncle and have a burial ceremony. This made me realise that I also want to be able to give back to the community in serving with the NSRI crew.”
With 11 women ranging in age from 17 to over 50, Station 16 has one of the largest female contingents of any NSRI base in South Africa.
“If you want it badly enough and put in the work, you can achieve anything you commit to, despite one’s gender,” said Bilqees Kyzer, 29.
Michaela Leo, a 17-year-old matric pupil, added: “As women, we are generally seen as the ‘inferior gender’ when it comes to physical work. However, that is just a mindset.
‘I would encourage more women to volunteer and join our rescue team because it not only about physical strength but how driven you are to want to make a difference or impact in society,” she said.
Most of the women at Station 16 are driven by a deep desire to serve their communities.
Kyzer, a Class 4 coxswain, which allows her to operate and pilot rescue vessels with a single motor and no navigational lights, grew up on the beach. Her father, Clint Abrahams, was involved with Sea Rescue, while she and her siblings did lifesaving.
“I always had a passion to help people and what better capacity to fulfil that role than in the maritime application.”
Growing up, Nicky Whitehead, 44, the chief executive of a company in the safety sector, did volunteer work at homes for the disabled, orphanages, and rehabilitation centres in Pretoria.
“When I relocated to Langebaan I joined Station 4 as a volunteer and transferred to Strandfontein when I moved to Muizenberg,” she said. ”When volunteering is part of your existence there is no getting away from it. You will always find a way to add value to your community.”
Charnelle Hare, 19, said: “I’ve always wanted to be a part of something great. I’ve always been a humanitarian, but it’s so much more than just a word. Saving lives and being able to hopefully give someone a second chance at life is beyond extraordinary.”
The women at Station 16 perform a wide variety of duties, from checklists, radio communications and maintenance of vessels to heading out to sea to save people in distress.
All have completed the intensive NSRI basic training before becoming permanent members and have gone to acquire additional skills.
Shore controller Ilhaam Adams said: “I started in September 2015, became crew, attended the fire-fighting course, received my radio licence, and am currently busy with Bravo Bravo on e-learning.
“I also attended a crew development course, as well as a 4×4 course, and I was also voted shore supporter for 2019 by my station.”
A driver and caregiver, Adams added: “Now with the career path, we are set for greatness, not only in our NSRI fields, but also in our personal capacity.”
Two of the other younger female members, Toni Zill, 21, and Faatin Samodien ,17, have their career paths mapped out and feel volunteering at the NSRI adds to their personal growth and development.
Zill is studying marine sciences and works for an organisation called I Am Water, while Faatin, a Grade 11 pupil, is working to towards becoming a veterinarian.
“We are like a family, especially at Station 16,” Zill said. “You learn a lot of new things and you are never not learning.”
Leo added, “We are different people from different communities who have the same mission – to save lives. The NSRI not only gives you the opportunity to make a difference and give back to society, but also opens various doors in life and helps you gain experience in various things.”