Staying on Track

By Brett Ayres, NSRI

Image credit:  Dr Berend Maarsingh, NSRI Station 12 Knysna

Application of effective technologies can save valuable time during a rescue operation. NSRI’s operations manager, Brett Ayres, shares some of the latest developments and the value of collaborative efforts.

Sea Rescue is fortunate to have excellent support from external partners and organisations operating at the cutting edge of new technologies. In addition, we have a talented pool of passionate rescue volunteers who work with applied technologies in their daily lives, including weather and climate scientists, cloud-computing and ITC experts, architects, drone operators and strategic-thinking consultants.

These volunteers have made their expertise, contacts and industry know-ledge available to Sea Rescue in the form of a technology or ‘futures’ committee where ideas and proposals are considered and evaluated. They have the free space to look ahead, to experiment and research ideas and concepts. When an idea has passed muster with them, it is then proposed to our Operational Support Committee and, if found worthy, budgeted for and operationalised to make a difference in the daily missions of our rescue stations.

One such project that we have been working on in association with the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is Oceans and Coasts: Information Management System, or OCIMS – it’s a great example of how an idea can be transformed into an operational tool that will save lives.

More about OCIMS

OCIMS is part of the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Operation Phakisa to exploit the economic potential of the seas around South Africa and one of the Oceans Governance workstreams that provide an information system that helps extend our earth-observation capability. In short, it is part of an initiative to unlock and preserve the economic potential of our Exclusive Economic Zone around our coast. (You can read more about this at

The idea behind OCIMS is to support a variety of ocean and coastal initiatives by providing information and decision support. To this end, teams at the CSIR have been working with many South African research agencies and scientists to develop a range of online tools*. One such tool is ‘Operations at Sea’, which has very useful benefits for Sea Rescue and the people we rescue.

This tool has algorithms built into it that shave off the many minutes (and errors) that come with manual calculations and plotting. It works by providing an instant result with only four data inputs: What is missing; what time it went missing; rescue vessel ETA; and where it was last seen (via a dropped pin on a map). The search area datum and coordinates are instantly provided for the rescue vessel to proceed to, and a search area box plotted on the map.

In 2017 we were approached by Marc De Vos, a scientist with the South African Weather Service and coxswain at Station 3 (Table Bay), who was assisting Dr Bjorn Backeberg of the CSIR with the development of the OCIMS Operations at Sea tool, believing it could be of assistance to Sea Rescue.

At the time we were constructing a training programme for stations to perform rapid searches. Coincidentally, around this time, Marc was involved with a search for a missing paddler off Robben Island and mentioned how valuable an application that incorporated very high resolution weather and ocean data (historical, present and forecast) with the last known position of a person in the water could be in speeding up a rescue response. In the frigid waters off Cape Town, mere minutes determine the difference between life and death.

Through many meetings since, the tool was developed and is currently being refined into one that will soon be available for use on a browser that Sea Rescue controllers can access via their phone, simply, quickly and accurately – saving lives.

*Among other tools that currently form part of the OCIMS suite are harmful algal bloom monitoring, marine spatial planning, coastal flood hazard identification, and integrated vessel tracking.