Sara Jane Smith of St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape is the National Sea Rescue Institute’s (NSRI) sole female station commander, in charge of Station 21.
“The only time I know I am the only female in this role is once a year at a conference, and it’s only because I notice it. That’s a testament to the type of people that the NSRI members are,” said the 37-year-old, who joined 11 years ago.
She says there is a special place for women in the NSRI, and not only because the organisation was founded by Patti Price. In 1966, following the tragic deaths of fishermen off Still Bay, Price embarked on a letter writing campaign, through the press, campaigning for a dedicated rescue service.
“When I started in my tenure as station commander in 2016, the support was incredible and came from a place of unity, not out of concern that a female was in charge.”
Smith’s role sees her manage the crew and assets on station, running checks to ensure that the crew and assets are in their best shape. “We have an amazing station committee which helps with the workload.” Incidentally, even her deputy station commander, is Yvette Maritz, is female.
Describing herself as a softly spoken person, Smith admits that it can be a challenge to get into a debate with the crew or coxswains. “Women do have a natural tendency to be more sensitive and compassionate and to communicate better, which is a huge asset to any crew and any station. As a woman on station, I have learnt not to let anyone answer for me, if I have something to say, or a difference in opinion, I let my voice be heard.”
Smith had heard about NSRI prior to joining, but says it had never crossed her mind as something she wanted to be involved in. “Shortly after moving to St Francis Bay I went to the station with a friend for moral support. I had never been on a boat in the ocean before and experienced the full spectrum of emotions.”
As a young trainee, Smith enjoyed a long training period. “I enjoyed my time as crew and continued to learn every time we got on the boat. I remember my first rescue and my first patient. I moved to different positions on the boat, from ropes, to medical till I eventually planted myself at the radio positions, super comfortable and just then, the incumbent station commander chatted to me about being a coxswain (the person crewing the boat when it is out on a rescue).”
Immediately feeling the weight of the responsibility of this senior position, Smith decided to test the waters and eased into the position, which entails much training.
Smith was appointed station commander in 2016, before she became a coxswain, which she says added a different dynamic to her journey. “After completing the coxswain assessment course in Cape Town with the HQ Training department, there was an anonymous vote among my own coxswains, and I remember feeling extremely nervous for the outcome of that decision despite where I sat on the station committee. It was humbling and probably the highlight of 2017 and my career to stand among the other coxswains, with my jacket and coxswain badge.”
To pay her bills, Smith runs a small accounting company, with a passion for payroll and tax.
When she isn’t working or volunteering, she enjoys making things, or refurbishing old furniture. “My husband and I spend a lot of time working on our house and doing DIY projects. Some of them are a success, and others we have to call in professionals to help rescue.”
She will spend Women’s Day in her happy place – at Station 21.