A CLOSER LOOK AT THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS' SEARCH AND RESCUE SERVICE
The Governor of the BVI, His Excellency David Pearey, recently hosted VISAR's annual fund raising dinner at Government House, so this seems a fitting time to take a closer look at this great organization.
VISAR is modelled on the R.N.L.I., the British Royal National Lifeboat Institute, which unlike the US Coast Guard and many other similar organizations, is funded totally by donations.
I grew up in the Isles of Scilly, where the sea was part of our lives and fund raising for the R.N.L.I. really meant something. This small group of islands and reefs are famous for their rough seas and tricky landfalls (think Fastnet 1979). The state of the art St. Mary's Lifeboat is designed to operate in unimaginable conditions and local history tells of some amazing feats of bravery where coxwains and crews have risked their lives saving sailors. The R.N.L.I. was the one charity all the islanders supported. They arranged suppers, educated tourists, held sporting events, even raised funds at the church fete. Incidentally the church was not always so supportive. In less prosperous days, the vicar led his poverty stricken congregation to pray "not that we wish wrecks to happen, but if they do, that thou shalt guide them to the Isles of Scilly". We were a barbarous lot!
VISAR was started in 1988. In the 70s, the bareboat companies helped each other when a boat got into trouble, sending out chase boats regardless of company, but this gradually changed and I remember vividly the first time one of the larger bareboat operators asked for salvage when they had pulled a competitor's boat off a reef. It was one of mine and ironically we had just helped them in a similar situation!
With the growing number of charter yachts, some kind of rescue service was required. From small beginnings, VISAR has grown into a truly efficient, professional organization, with fast modern lifeboats that can reach a boat in trouble within minutes anywhere in the BVI, any time, any day. The volunteers are all fully trained in search and rescue, and first aid. There are two stations, one in Tortola and one in Virgin Gorda. Each station divides their crews into three groups, so at any one time, 8 are on duty (the red crew), another 8 are on standby (white crew) and the others are off-duty (blue crew). Volunteers come from all walks of life, including charter boat operators, bankers, accountants, dive shop operators and surveyors. All are unpaid, both for the training exercises they are constantly doing and for the time they spend on a mission.
VISAR works seamlessly with the medical services, charter flights and the US Coast Guard. Patients are quickly transported to a waiting ambulance, once stabilized. More serious cases are flown to Puerto Rico or to the US. To reach them with an emergency, dial 911 or the British emergency number, 999. On a cell phone it's 767 (or SOS). You can of course also reach them on VHF channel 16.
So far they have directly saved over 40 lives and helped over 1200 people in distress. Victims are never charged but the cost of running the service is considerable. Funds for almost half the yearly expenses are raised by charter companies and crewed yachts. Bareboaters might see an optional $2 per head added to their bill. This small donation adds up and makes a big difference, so please don't ask them to remove it, particularly now that you know a little bit more about the great service these guys and gals provide!
P.S. These fine pictures of VISAR crew Helo training with the U.S.C.G. were taken by Paul Hubbard and are published in this newsletter with permission.
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