Sara Smith rides wave of success at National Sea Rescue Institute

Sara Jane Smith, right, who has become the National Sea Rescue Institute’s only female station commander, with Yvette Martiz, deputy station commander at Station 21 in St Francis Bay
ALL HANDS ON DECK: Sara Jane Smith, right, who has become the National Sea Rescue Institute’s only female station commander, with Yvette Martiz, deputy station commander at Station 21 in St Francis Bay
Image: Supplied

Fearless, hardworking, and determined to succeed are just three attributes which have seen Sara Jane Smith become the National Sea Rescue Institute’s only female station commander.  

Though renowned in the Eastern Cape as the commander of the NSRI Station 21 in St Francis Bay, she has now made headlines nationally with NSRI’s recent announcement.

This is no mean feat as the NSRI has been a traditionally male-dominated organisation.

When Smith started at the station 11 years ago, this was and still is, the case.

“I was unsure how to handle things. But I wanted to achieve.

“I ignored comments about women not being able to cope. I wanted to prove myself, to survive, and do what I enjoy. I love boats and the sea.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for me,” Smith said.

Smith admits being a shy, nervous, 26-year-old when she joined.

“On my first outing in a boat in choppy seas, I was overwhelmed and frightened. I asked myself, “Am I going to die?”

Often, when she started answering a question from the floor, she would be interrupted by a crewman, replying for her.

Smith politely waited till the crewman finished, and then continued to say what she wanted to.

When she was appointed to more senior positions, some crewmen tried to take over her tasks but she would quietly say: “I am in charge now. Let’s get the job done.”

Recounting steps to her success,  Smith said after four months she nearly left the organisation after an embarrassing incident where she became seasick and her vomit landed on another crewman.

Mortified she did not want to show her face at NSRI again.

But Bob Meikle, the station commander at the time, would hear nothing of the sort, saying only: “See you at practice on Monday.”

So she returned and doubled her efforts to succeed.

Smith said she had trained incredibly hard to be a coxswain but before she could wear that badge, she had been nominated to be station commander in 2016. Normally the coxswain position comes before commander.

The coxswain title was finally earned in 2017.

“It was the highlight of my career to stand among other coxswains, with my jacket and coxswain badge.”

She said her only regret was that she now missed being part of the rescues and all the action.

Her job as station commander is akin to an operations manager.

She has administrative help but is responsible for shore work, radio, handling crew, training, organising equipment, and planning rescues.

Smith said her scariest sea rescue had been when the chokka boat Sikilele was knocked over and crashed against the rock wall while entering St Francis port in stormy weather.

Attempts to save it failed and crew abandoned ship, some by jumping in the sea, others by scrambling up on the rocks.

Meikle, who was Smith’s station commander during her trainee years, talks of her enthusiasm, reliability, good voice on the radio, and willingness to do anything needed.

Ex-station commander Marc May, recently lauded for his 20 years’ service to the NSRI, said Smith’s dedication came from within.

“Respect is earned, not given.

“She earned her rightful place at the station and in the community. Sara served under my command. I am happy to serve under hers.”

Yvette Maritz, deputy commander at the station, described Smith as a dedicated worker and an achiever.

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