Balancing Westpac with water rescues

Jessica Satherley
Balancing Westpac with water rescues

Boat fires, medical events at sea, rescuing stranded vessels – it's all in a weekend’s work for Westpac’s Philip Downs.

By day, the 48-year-old father-of-two works in Westpac’s Auckland office doing risk management in business continuity, crisis and incident response.

And his crisis and incident response skills have also flowed over into the marine rescue field.

When he’s not at work, he’s available for call-outs and on-water duty days for the Howick Volunteer Coastguard and has been for the last two years, as well as being their treasurer. 

“I became a volunteer because I'm really interested in boating and couldn’t get out on the water as much as I wanted to, and I wanted to help in the community.

“Training to be a crew member is extensive though, it took 15 months to get to the level of ‘operational crew’,” he said.

While Coastguarding can be a high-adrenalin business, the majority of their work is responding to mechanical failures, Downs says.

“My most recent callout was for a breakdown in the Waiheke Channel, a vessel ran out of diesel, so we towed them to Westhaven,” he said.

His area of operation is the Hauraki Gulf, which can see the crew go anywhere from Great Barrier Island, to The Coromandel, to Whangaparaoa.

The training that is required covers medical, boat master skills and marine search and rescue training.

“There have been challenges in balancing my personal life and Coastguard life, but it’s changed my life for the better.

“Not only is it rewarding but I've met a lot of great people and learnt a lot. I've also shown my kids what volunteering can do,” he said.

Howick Volunteer Coastguard was established after the drowning of three boys in 1956.

It has been operating continuously since then and there are now 50 volunteers dedicated to saving lives at sea.

Last year 450 people were assisted, amounting to 2,000 search and rescue hours from members.

Coastguard New Zealand as a whole assisted over 7,000 people last year and is made up of around 2000 volunteers.

It’s the primary marine search and rescue operation in New Zealand and relies heavily on donations from the public.

Downs says he would recommend Coastguard to anyone who’s thinking about volunteering long term.

"To be on the water you need a bit of boating knowledge and you have to meet a certain standard of being able to swim in the water with your clothes on, but there are also shore-based roles on the team,” he said.

Anyone who is interested should contact their local unit. Contact numbers are on the Coastguard website.

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