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John Thompson with Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy following the award ceremony in Wellington on Tuesday evening. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

By ROBYN BRISTOW

A coastguard volunteer with a gift for making volunteers feel valued and supported has been recognised for his commitment and outstanding work for the Coastguard Waimakariri-Ashley.

John Thompson was honoured with a Certificate of Achievement in Support Activity at the New Zealand Search and Rescue (NZSAR) Awards on Tuesday evening.

John says it is a pity one person from the Waimakariri-Ashley coastguard has been singled out for an award as it is a team effort and “no one person deserves credit”.

“I am very, very lucky to be surrounded by young proactive guys and girls,” he says.

John joined the coastguard in 2006 because he wanted something to do in his retirement. He gives more than a thousand hours of voluntary time to the organisation each year.

He was elected president in 2015, is a board member, the search and rescue co-ordinator, administrator, a senior crewman and a mentor of young volunteers.

He also reaches out into the community and beyond to raise funds to keep the coastguard afloat and housed.

National Coastguard chief executive Patrick Homes says John is an invaluable asset to the Coastguard team.

“His commitment to all aspects of Coastguard work is humbling. Whenever something needs to be done, John can be counted on. He is selfless in his dedication to helping save lives at sea.” Coastguard Waimakariri-Ashley’s workplace is 150 square nautical miles, running from New Brighton pier to Motunau and 12 miles (19.3km) out to sea. But most of its work is done much closer to home, at the Waimakariri River bar.

Last Sunday, while out on a training exercise, it was called to a small boat in trouble just off the bar which was in danger of capsizing.

“We sped back from our exercise and towed it back to shore,” says John, who has been a keen boatie most of his life.

Two recent rescues remain high on John’s list of successes for the organisation. The first was 18 months ago when the a motorcyclist was flung into a flooded Waimakariri River after his bike was hit by a truck on the old Waimakariri River bridge.

“He grabbed on to the only piece of exposed willow sticking up and clung on,” John says.

The Westpac Rescue helicopter and the Coastguard were both called and, while the chopper put down a line, the Coastguard’s larger boat sat in behind to rescue him if the airlift failed.

The second time was last November when two vehicles were caught in a flash flood in the Waimakariri.

“Eight people were rescued. They couldn’t have survived if they had gone into the water because it was too rough and turbulent.”

The Coastguard was the only rescue unit available and while the larger vessel stayed downriver, the crew on its smaller inflatable vessel plucked people to safety from their roof-tops.

John says the Coastguard faces an ever-changing situation, with regulations to meet along with training schedules – a rigorous process that takes around four years.

John says the coastguard is not just a “lifesaving” unit, but a “life changing” one.

Young people feature highly in the organisation, with the unit regularly mentoring and helping young people to reach their potential.

“Lives have been turned around. They are given a sense of direction and self worth. Each time they go out on a rescue and bring someone home safe, it is special. Something happens when they rescue someone. Their lives are changed forever.

“It can be a rollercoaster ride emotionally. They can be elated with success or be bitterly disappointed,” John says.

The local Coastguard has 34 members and is fortunate to have three new Masters, with two of those qualifying the youngest to do so in New Zealand, John says. “The Masters qualification is a high qualification, as high as for a commercial launch.”

The unit now has a new home on the banks of the Kaiapoi River, after its previous base succumbed to the 2010 earthquake.

It is now looking to raise $500,000 to get a new boat – an 8.7-metre jet boat with twin jet engines and a totally enclosed cabin to house all the electronic GPS, radar and radio gear.

The organisation receives a small amount of Government funding for a service level agreement, but the remainder has to be fundraised.