Western Port’s women of the waves

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On deck: Zuza Kosowska Rengarajah, Jen Lee, and Sharon Latocha on board the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard’s Western Port Flotilla’s rescue vessel.

WOMEN have found their calling at the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard’s Western Port Flotilla, based in Hastings, which has a higher percentage of females than most.

Of the 48 members, 29 per cent are female – said to be almost 10 per cent higher than the state average.

Members come from diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and ages to assist at the flotilla which responds to maritime emergencies 24 hours a day all year.

The area they cover is one of the largest in Victoria: 680 square kilometres which extends out into Bass Strait and takes in 263 kilometres of coastline, including Phillip and French islands.

Hastings member Zuza Kosowska Renarajah started volunteering as race manager and race day boat driver at Port Melbourne Yacht club in 2004. With a PhD in chemistry, the mother of two has volunteered with the coast guard since 2007 after “getting a taste of marine rescue from the yacht club”.

“I knew there was more to learn,” she said, adding that the coast guard could provide these additional skills.

Ms Renarajah is the only female skipper on the 10-metre Noosa Cat rescue vessel and is also the flotilla training officer.

The fact that the coast guard operates year round, regardless of weather, was another reason for Ms Renarajah to join. She wanted something more than seasonal. It has now become a big part of her life.

“The coastguard has become part of who I am,” she said.

“I’ve met some amazing people, made lifelong friends and helped make an organisation better. I’ve become invested in its future.”

Ms Renarajah says she sees the coast guard as the sum of its members. “It is us – the members – that make the coast guard what it is.”

Year-long member and mother of two Sharon Latocha joined because her husband is a member. She had just cut back her working week as a life insurance underwriter and was looking for a new challenge – “something totally different to my work life”. After a year’s study and training, she qualified as a competent crew on the rescue vessel while building up her hours to become the next female skipper.

Ms Latocha says she “loves learning all the new skills and can’t believe I can do what I can do now after just one year”. She said the coast guard had taught her to “never underestimate” herself. She is now flotilla membership officer.

Remote area nurse Jen Lee is well suited to marine search and rescue because of the need for members to be trained in first-aid.

“In my 20s I spent a year sailing on yachts in the South Pacific, so I knew I liked to be around boats,” she said. “What I didn’t anticipate was how passionate I’d become about coast guard, and what amazing opportunities would present themselves to me, surrounded by like-minded people, who have become close friends.”

On a duty day the coast guard can respond to myriad scenarios, such as towing vessels with flat batteries or mechanical problems and conducting search-and-rescues to find those missing on the water. Last year the Western Port flotilla conducted about 140 rescues – up 36 per cent on the previous year.

“I’ll never get tired of seeing the relief on people’s faces when we turn up to help them,” Ms Latocha said. “It is the look of relief that makes all our hard work worthwhile.”

Anyone interested in volunteering with Western Port Coast Guard can email Sharon at membership.vf4@coastguard.com.au

First published in the Western Port Times – 8 May 2019

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