Monday, 29 February 2016

Coxswains Course: Days 3 and 4

Hi everyone,
After the trip up on Friday night, I slept really well, and woke up on Saturday bright and early and in the mood for a run.  I went a total of about 8 kilometres in 45 minutes, first through Swan Hill itself and then doubling back along the railway line and then along the river trail.  It was a beautiful cool morning and perfect for my first run in (sigh) about 2 weeks.

We had a hot breakfast before getting underway, kicking off with hazardous launch practice into the Murray a few miles downstream of the camp.  Hazardous indeed: the launch site was on the far side of a couple of sharp river levees, and I managed to scrape the back of the boat quite badly just trailering in to the waters edge.
That said, I was pretty pleased with how I handled both the vehicle, and trailer and boat over the challenging terrain.  I've said it before, but it's still true: there's nothing better than realising you just did what you'd never have been able to do a year ago.
Swan Hill has always been one of the busier centres of the river, and so there was plenty of activity on the water.  The paddlewheeler PS Pyap (built 1896) still goes up and down the river, and at one point several rescue boats found themselves darting out of its way.
PS Pyap at Pioneer Settlement
Image from here
Near to the camp (and apparently landlocked) was the even older PS Gem (built 1876), now a floating restaurant.
Image from here
The bridge had been designed to allow these boats to pass underneath it.

I found myself in the boat for the morning session with a trainer from Mansfield and a coxswain candidate from Rushworth, both of them very good fellows to work with.  We kicked off the morning with casualty- and body recovery drills in the water, and also some of the finer points of boat handling (crossing laterally using the current, for example), as well as some more basic skills (anchor handling, for example).
After lunch, it was time to kick off with the assessments for both coxswain and crewperson candidates.  Happily, for the assessments I was paired with a sensible, down to earth man from the Bendigo unit.  Our first task was to plot a course to a particular point upriver, anchor there and complete an on-water propeller change.  Setting the course and getting us there was no problem; anchoring was a skill we'd both learned, and the propeller change went smoothly (and would have been smoother) if the examiner hadn't also been firing questions at us as to correct drill for a fire on board, for man overboard and for abandoning ship)!  Once back at camp there was the theory section of the assessment to get through (long but manageable).  It felt heavenly to be able to clock off, change out of uniform and have a shower and then cross the river into New South Wales to go to dinner at the Federal Hotel in Moulamein (if you're ever there, try the monkfish on salad - beautiful salty flavour).

We had to kick off an hour earlier on Sunday morning to get through the four assessment stands that were left: body recovery, vessel recovery, marine search and support other agency (for the purposes of the exercise, transporting water to support the fire brigade).  All of them went smoothly except for transporting water, where the pump supplied was a complete b*****d to start and keep going, resulting in the task taking two hours rather than the usual one.  Still, it was a good approximation of field conditions: things don't always go to plan!

As we wrapped up for the day, there was time for group photo with the candidates, trainers and support staff.  The Service puts a huge amount of effort into these events, and its good to have everyone recognised, at least a bit.

I'm in the middle row standing, at the far left (the one in the legionnaire's cap)
By the time we finished, I think all of us were caked in sunscreen and perspiration and river water and the mud and grime of old man river.  Another shower felt heavenly, before a debrief and the long drive back to Tatura and then home.
I'm pleased to say that a message came through today that each of the Tatura candidates passed and has been signed off as a rescue coxswain.  I'm pretty pleased about this: it's another thing I'd never have believed I could do (and that the Ex would have laughed at the thought of me doing).  It's certainly a great feeling!

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