For the Mackay boating public, VMR448 is your answer to on-water help. This group of dedicated volunteers are on call 24/7 to assist in all maritime situations. From everyday breakdowns to retrieving seriously ill patients from cruise ships and bulk carriers and working in conjunction with the Water Police conducting search and rescue missions for missing vessels and crew, VMR448 conduct over one hundred “activations” a year. From the Percy Island group in the south, north to the Goldsmith group and east to the Great Barrier Reef, VMR448 has the responsibility of looking after an area in excess of 6000 square nautical miles. To give this some perspective, this is almost one third the area of Tasmania.
Mackay Air Sea Rescue Squad was formed in May 1965 after a boating accident which claimed 3 lives. A few friends decided to form a committee to rescue people at sea with a meeting called by the late George Hamilton and held in the old School of Arts building in Gordon Street. From there the squad was named and formed with George Hamilton as President, Colin Millen as Secretary, and Alan Brown as Treasurer. All rescue work and searches were done in member’s private boats, with light aircraft hired to locate missing boats as there was no such thing as GPS or mobile phones and very limited two-way radio communications.
By 1970 the committee had saved enough money to purchase a 7 meter Shark Cat with outboard motors with this fitted out by the members. This first Rescue Cat was destroyed in the Mackay Harbour while trying to save other boats during a wild storm. The squad then purchased another 7 meter Shark Cat, before upgrading to an 8.5 meter Cougar Cat and later a 10 meter Cougar Cat.
When first formed there was only 27MZ radios (CB) available, which were very weak and operated in line of sight only. Initially, volunteers would monitor the radio from a van that was driven to the harbour each weekend until the squad was given a small piece of ground for a radio room at the top of the old harbour boat ramp. As the coverage was so limited, radio bases were also established in private residences at Clairview, Sarina, Keswick Island, St Bees Island, Slade Point, Seaforth, Halliday Bay and St Helens Beach. These were all monitored by members of the squad. When the current marina was being built, the Port Authority gave the squad the block of land at the top of the boat ramp where, in 2000 the present building was constructed following a mammoth fund raising effort by the committee.
In 1997 the squad became an Incorporated Association and changed the name to Volunteer Marine Rescue to fall into line with the rest of the State.
Today, VMR448 operates three vessels. A 6.5m Swift RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat), Mackay Rescue is the baby of the fleet. Powered by two, ninety horsepower Suzuki outboards, this vessel is easily towed to more remote launching locations and can operate in shallow waters as required, but also has the ability to tow most trailer boats from the closer islands in good weather. Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal (DBCT) Mackay Rescue 6 is the vessel we turn to when rapid response is the order of the day. This 8.5 meter Woody Marine RHIB is powered by twin 300 horsepower Suzuki outboards and on calm days can reach 48 knots or 90 kilometers per hour. Top dog in the fleet is Mackay Rescue 5. Powered by twin Cummins diesels and over 11 meters or 38 feet in length, this flybridge Steber has the range, seakeeping ability and towing capacity to handle just about any task the crew may face. While the Steber remains in the water through sponsorship by the Mackay Marina, the two RHIBS are on trailers and housed at the squad base at the top of the marina boat ramp. Moving them is accomplished by a Holden Rodeo utility which has been generously donated by New Pioneer Motors and a John Deere tractor procured with sponsorship by Vanderfield Mackay.
Without the generous assistance of our major sponsors, VMR448 would struggle to survive. The fleet of vessels represents nearly 1.3 million dollars in replacement value with scheduled maintenance costs and engine replacements throughout their operational lives adding up to tens of thousands of dollars a year. With Mackay having a registered boating population approaching twenty thousand, it is disappointing that only fifteen hundred are financial VMR448 members. The current annual membership fee of $85 has not changed for many years and we now find ourselves in a position where inflation has driven us to increase this fee.
Financial membership to VMR448 provides many benefits to the boating public, from cost price activations (you only pay for the fuel used) to discounts with many local traders. Compared to a nonfinancial member who will be charged a callout fee plus a possible 2 times the cost of the fuel, the savings are obvious. With the Mackay boating public gravitating to larger, more seaworthy and economical vessels, round trips by VMR488 of over 150 nautical miles where six or seven hundred litres of fuel are used are not uncommon. As an example, at the current fuel price, for a 500 litre activation, a member would pay $680 whilst a non-member would be charged over $1500. You don’t have to be far offshore to recoup the membership fee. It is a sad fact that if more boat owners were members, any future fee increases would be reduced.