This summer, I spent two months in Germany visiting family and friends and doing some typically German things. The thing I was looking forward to the most was a visit with the German Maritime Search and Rescue Association, DGzRS (Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger). Yes, it is a mouthful, even for Germans— which is why they underwent an extensive rebranding process not unlike our own. They’re now known as the Seenotretter— the “sea emergency rescuers,” which is much easier to remember!
Day 1: Visiting Head Office (Bremen)
I arrived in Bremen on a Friday afternoon and found the organization’s head office. This is where the Seenotretter do their administration, marketing and so forth, as well as some training (they, too, have a simulator in the basement!). Unlike us, they also have a small theatre, the MRCC (similar to our JRCC) and a shipyard where they overhaul each and every one of their boats every three years.
Their head office building is nice and modern, right in the middle of Bremen, overlooking the Weser River which flows into the North Sea. A volunteer, Herr Meyer, gave me a tour of the premises. After exchanging some key dates and figures, I was shown a short film in their basement theatre. Then we had time for a Q&A.
Among other things, I learned that while Germany doesn’t have direct access to the Mediterranean Sea, the Seenotretter sent several crews of volunteers to help with the recent influx of refugees fleeing Syria via the sea. With their help, over 1,100 people were rescued from the water between March and June. While the majority of the crew returned to Germany at the beginning of June, some volunteers stayed behind with a lifeboat to help build up local SAR services in Greece.
After the movie, we donned our hard hats and had a look at three boats that were just getting refit and painted and were about to be released back into the Weser River to go back to their respective bases.
Another difference between how things are run in Germany versus how they’re run here in Canada is that they use an MRCC—Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre—which is actually located in the same building! We went upstairs to check it out, but sadly the MRCC staff were busy dealing with an incident at the time. Right next to the MRCC is Bremen Rescue Radio, a station that monitors channels 16 and 70 night and day.
This concluded my visit to the Seenotretter headquarters in Bremen. I was more than excited to continue to Bremerhaven the next day and meet with an on-call crew.
Some Seenotretter Facts
- The DGzRS was founded in 1865 and just celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, which is also why the IMRF World Maritime Rescue Congress took place in Germany that year!
- The German Coast Guard is not responsible for any search and rescue operations, although sometimes they come and help. All SAR is coordinated by the Seenotretter. (The German Coast Guard’s main focus is border protection.)
- They have some mandates RCM-SAR doesn’t, such as firefighting, transport of medical doctors and transport of lifeguards and rescue divers.
- Germany’s waters border the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and the UK, and the Seenotretter frequently collaborates with neighbouring rescue organizations such as the RNLI and KNRM. Herr Meyer described the collaboration as “excellent,” a word that Germans use very rarely, so when they do you know that they mean it!
Day 2: Onboard the Rescue Cruiser Hermann Rudolf Meyer
The following afternoon, I made my way to Bremerhaven Harbour and found the rescue cruiser Hermann Rudolf Meyer. It is 76 feet long and has its own lifeboat on the back deck. It was interesting to see that they operate the cruiser and lifeboat with a crew of only four— one of whom is a machinist. The on-call crew, who live on the boat during their 14-day shifts, welcomed me with coffee and tea which they served in their mess, which doubles up as a sickbay when needed.
Coxswain Andreas and crew members Christian, Olaf and Wilm gave me a tour of their vessel—engine room, kitchen, bridge— and we compared gear and processes and exchanged plenty of anecdotes. Some of their calls involve work accidents onboard big commercial ships, not something that ever happens in Sooke! It was interesting to see how many things we do in similar ways, but also how many things are done differently.
The coxswain then decided to indulge me and head out for a quick patrol around the harbour area (amazing) and I even got a ride on their lifeboat (even more amazing)! The lifeboat is a cabin boat, and at one outboard engine and 23 feet is a little smaller than our Falkins-class vessels; it slides into the water off the cruiser’s stern deck and you drive it back up afterwards assisted by a cable pull.
While the visit to their head office was fun and informative (and especially their MRCC, if I had been able to spend more time there), meeting the local duty crew was my favourite part. I am truly grateful that the four of them took the extra time for my barrage of questions, and hope that if they ever find themselves in British Columbia they drop by our station so I can return the hospitality!
Next time you’re on vacation, I recommend checking out the local rescue scene and exchanging stories with the locals, whether it’s marine search and rescue or a different organization. It’s amazing how much you can learn!
More Seenotretter Facts
- The DGZRS has 20 cruisers between 20 and 46 metres (up to 150 feet) in length operated by paid crews, which are on call for 14 days and then off for 14 days. They also have 40 lifeboats (like ours), operated entirely by volunteers.
- They have 180 full-time staff and around 800 volunteers, and they are in the luxurious position to have more applicants for the volunteer work than they need.
- They maintain 54 stations along the German coastline (North Sea and Baltic Sea) which, counting islands and inlets, is almost 3,000 kilometres long.
- They are financed entirely through donations and some grants, but no tax money.