Coast guards in Australia

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Australia, with 19,650 kilometres of coastline does not have a force purely to defend its coast. The duty of patrolling the Australian coastline falls to the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Border Force Maritime Border Command, and the Police services of the states. In addition, there are several private volunteer coast guard organisations, the two largest organisations being the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol (established in 1937 as the Volunteer Coastal Patrol) and the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard (established in 1961). These volunteer organisations have no law enforcement powers, but are essentially auxiliary Search and Rescue services. In July 2009 the three organisations (Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol, Australian Volunteer Coast Guard and some units of the Volunteer Rescue Association's Marine Branch) united in New South Wales under the government sponsored[1] Marine Rescue NSW.[2] The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard remains operational in Victoria, Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania[3] alongside a number of other Volunteer Marine Rescue agencies.

Australian Volunteer Coast Guard[edit]

Australian Volunteer Coastguard vessel

The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard Association was established in 1961, and modelled on the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Association is an organisation composed entirely of volunteers. It guards the coast in the most effective way - initially by education, example, examination and finally by search and rescue.

The Australian Volunteer Coast Guard has no law enforcement powers and enjoys a reputation for being helpful and courteous to all boat owners.

Australia has a coastline of nearly 20 000 km. (12 200 miles). 90% of Australia's population of 22 million live within 120 km of the coast and over 70% live in the coastal belt from Cairns in Queensland to Adelaide in South Australia.

Flotillas and radio bases are located from the Skardon River in the Gulf of Carpentaria, down the eastern seaboard to Ceduna in South Australia, including Tasmania and major inland lakes and weirs. Coast Guard currently has more than 2,500 Regular members and 9,000 Associate members. Expansion is continuing in areas of need.

Coast Guard resources across Australia include:

  • 107 Association-owned rescue vessels
  • 147 radio bases under the control of 72 local flotillas
  • 30 communication and display vans and 4WD vehicles
  • Registered Training Organisations delivering competency based training
  • Formal affiliations and collaborations with similar organisations in Australia, New Zealand, North America, the Philippines and Europe.

Coast Guard services include:

  • Public Education Courses

Covering Boat license testing and safe boating seminars [where applicable] Basic Seamanship, Marine Radio Procedures, Navigation and Bar Crossing
• Training
Coast Guard is the only dedicated marine rescue Registered Training Organization with courses accredited nationally
• Safety Patrols
Association and member owned vessels patrol our waterways assisting the public with safe boating advice, mechanical problems and responding to distress calls when they occur. All rescue vessels are on 24-hour standby.
• Radio Monitoring
Each flotilla has radio facilities monitoring marine distress frequencies including VHF Channel 16, 27 MHz Channel 88 and HF band 2182 kHz.
• Log On – Log Off
Coast Guard Radio Bases will keep track of recreational boaters whilst on a coastal passage or moving in and out of the same port
• Search & Rescue
Coast Guard works closely with the State Water Police and other volunteer rescue organisations in search and rescue operations

For further information, visit

Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol[edit]

In 1936 Commander Rupert Long, OBE, RAN, Director of Naval Intelligence raised with retired Captain Maurice Blackwood, DSO, RN the possibility of raising a group of trained yachtsmen as a Naval Auxiliary Service. Discussions were held with HWG Nobbs and W Giles, both Sydney yachtsmen and a proposal sent to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board that a Volunteer Coastal Patrol be established under the command of Captain Blackwood. The Naval Board supported this and on 27 March 1937 the Volunteer Coastal Patrol was established under the command of Captain Blackwood, DSO, RN (rtd) with H.W.G. Nobbs as Staff Officer Operations and W Giles as Staff Officer Administration.

During World War II Coastal Patrol members became special constables and guarded commercial wharves, oil installations and bridges. By the war's end, patrol vessels had patrolled 128,000 miles of harbour and coastal waters and donated 393,000-man-hours of unpaid war service. They were granted the right to fly the Police Nemesis pennant as recognition of this service and the right to fly the New South Wales State Flag as their ensign.

Post war development saw the Patrol undertake civilian search and rescue operations as their primary role but maintain their original Royal Australian Navy inspired organisation structure, ranks and uniform. 1955 saw a democratically elected council formed which directed the development and administration of the Patrol and appointed the Officer Commanding. 1963 saw the Patrol become an incorporated company and the articles of association written. In 1974, Her Majesty the Queen granted the Patrol the privilege of adding the Royal prefix to its title when it became the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol (RVCP). In 2008 the NSW State Government after strong representations by RVCP agreed to the amalgamation of the three volunteer rescue organisations (RVCP, Volunteer Rescue Association (marine sections) and Australian Volunteer Coast Guard (NSW units) into one organisation which became Volunteer Marine Rescue NSW (VMRNSW) and commenced operation on 1 January 2010. Today VMRNSW works closely with all government agencies in search and rescue and education to the boating public. They maintain constant watch in Radio Bases for marine traffic, work with the Water Police in search and rescue as well as crowd control at major maritime events, run education classes in seamanship, navigation, first aid and meteorology for the public as well as providing constant information to Radio Stations and TV stations regarding sea conditions etc.

The NSW Government imposes an annual levy of $7 on boat registration and boat driver licences to fund the operation of VMRNSW which has enabled the replacement and refurbishment of many old boats and equipment. All members of the Patrol are volunteers with a large proportion of their time devoted to raising funds needed in addition to the government provision.

Efforts to create a single Australian Coast Guard[edit]

After the Tampa affair, and the declaration of the War on Terrorism, in 2001 Kim Beazley announced that the Australian Labor Party, if in government, would establish an Australian Coast Guard "responsible for conducting Australia's coastal surveillance and meeting Australia's maritime protection needs, including in relation to illegal immigration, drugs, fisheries, and quarantine-related issues".[4] This plan met with criticism. Peter Reith criticised Beazley for stating that an Australian Coast Guard both will and will not be an "answer to the question of people smuggling".[5] The plan was criticised by the Australian government, on the grounds that it would either be prohibitively expensive or inadequate to the task. Later, the motives for the establishment of an Australian Coast Guard were interpreted by some as "a plan to extend the capabilities of the Australian Federal Police."[6]

New South Wales[edit]

In November 2008, the NSW Government announced the establishment of a new volunteer marine rescue organisation to be called Marine Rescue NSW, (MRNSW) which was incorporated in July 2009. Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol, Australian Volunteer Coast Guard (NSW units) and Volunteer Rescue Association (marine units) united under the new organisation which began operation on 1 January 2010.

Marine Rescue NSW[edit]

MRNSW is a charitable organisation similar to the RNLI in Britain. It provides radio and rescue services over nsw with 45 units along the coast including two inland units and has over 3000 volunteers. It is also a registered training organisation ensuring that its members are trained and maintain compentancies.

The NSW Government imposes an annual levy of $7 both on boat registration and on boat driver licences to provide funds for MRNSW to refurbish and replace old boats and equipment. As at 1 January 2016, MRNSW has refurbished a number of boats and purchased many new purpose built boats. MRNSW members are volunteer and in addition to their duties as radio operators, boat crew and many other tasks spend large amounts of time raising funds needed in addition to those provided by the government.

Western Australia[edit]

Neither the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol nor the Australian Volunteer Coastguard are active in Western Australia, which is the largest state with the longest coastline. Out to sea functions of coastal defence and policing are handled by the Royal Australian Navy. Inshore close to towns the West Australian Police co-ordinate local search and rescue between various state agencies (such as DOT, Fisheries and Water Police), Volunteer Sea Rescue Groups (VSRGs) who provide the majority of the assets and not for profit companies such as Westpac helicopter.

Volunteer Marine Rescue Groups (VMRs) form the core of the system with three main areas :

  • Emergency response / Search And Rescue (SAR)
  • Education
  • Radio Monitoring

Whitford Volunteer Sea Rescue's two main lifeboats "Stacy Hall" (Left) and "city of Joondalup" (Right)

VMRs (37) are affiliated to DFES (Department of Fire and Emergency Services) or two maintain independence from government and act as charities (in much the same way as the RNLI in UK work). The 3 largest VMRs are part of DFES including Mandurah the oldest VMR group in WA. The remaining two Independent groups are controlled by Metro Volunteer Sea Rescue Group with Cockburn VSRG and Whitfords VSRG.

DFES supports and coordinated all or most of the other VMRS in the state.

SAR - VSRGs regularly patrol and man boats during weekends and public holidays as at these times the likelihood of a callout is higher. Most callouts these days result in unglamourous towing jobs rather than dashing rescues. This is a success of the system and modern technology. In the past with fewer radios, no EPIRBS, poor boater education and slower response times more breakdowns may have resulted in emergencies. Today callouts happen early by radio, boaters are better trained and carry safety equipment such as anchors or alternate propulsion. However accidents still do happen and VSRGs also regularly attend real emergencies.

VSRGs are usually equipped to handle emergencies such as : - Lost divers / man overboard - E.g. Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR), searchlights - Lost vessels - medical emergencies - both at sea and around marinas - boats are usually equipped with backboards, O2, defiblirators - Vessel accidents and damage control - Towing

Education - WA has brought in a compulsory Recreational Skippers Ticket (RST). Many VSRGs train and license instructors to teach the RST as well as Yachting Australia and other courses such as "Coastal navigation", "National Powerboat", "Marine Radio Operator's Certificate" - these courses are put on regularly by the volunteer instructors and the proceeds go to the VSRG. Additionally educational programs such as speaking at clubs and schools may be carried out. Rescue Boat Crews also often help boaters at public boat ramps while on call in between patrols and spend time talking to boaters and promoting boating safety, education and equipment.

Radio monitoring - VSRGs provide radio monitoring services usually on Marine VHF and 27Mhz Marine CB. Some also monitor long range MF & HF frequencies. The Radio service is at the core of what VSRGs do in such a large and empty coastline. With the advent of DSC radios few ships even monitor Ch.16 anymore and in many parts of the world (e.g. UK) coastguard radio monitoring has dried up.

Some stations provide 24/7 radio coverage with shifts of volunteers. Evenings the radio watch towers are not manned but instead through the use of computers and the internet radios are monitored at home by volunteers. This system is expanding so that more stations are able to run round the clock. Radio monitoring is a volunteer activity where retired people can actively volunteer in a sometimes exciting activity and retired volunteers provide the backbone of the radio monitoring service. The most important service that the Radio teams provide is allowing boaters and divers to "log on" and "log off" the water. Logging on is not compulsory, however its actively encouraged. With such a large body of water this is one of the best methods of raising the alarm. Boaters will call up VSRG and provide the following information :

  • Callsign (many boaters join their local VSRG who give them a personal callsign and record their information for SAR purposes)
  • # Persons on Board
  • Fuel Carried
  • DOT Registration Number
  • Area of operation (in case they need to search for you)
  • Expected Time of Return (ETR)

If the boater fails to check in and close the log (Similar to USCG Auxiliary "Float Plan") the VSRG will try to raise them by VHF, 27 MHz and mobile phone. If they are not contactable within 30mins Water Police are informed who will access Police boat and vehicle records (not available to VSRGs) and contact the home to check if they have returned. Sometimes Car and Trailer registrations numbers (Public info) is supplied to VSRGs who will check the boat ramp. If a search is Warranted Water Police will task agencies such as Police Launch or VSRGs to mount a search.

Most overdue boaters simply forget to log out however there are occasions where searches were mounted and survivors found simply because people were overdue. ALL BOATERS are encouraged to log on with VSRGs and TO REMEMBER TO LOG OFF (Real people burn real fuel and leave real jobs to come look for you in their own time) - And if they do not wish to log on with VSRG (e.g. they want to keep a fishing site private) they may log on by phone privately OR are encouraged to log on / off with a relative or friend, so that at least someone knows their whereabouts.

Contacting VSRGs in WA

  • VHF Ch. 73
  • 27Mhz Ch. 90 can be used to call up the local Sea Rescue Groups.
  • For Life-threatening Emergencies only - contact WA Water Police on 000
  • Alternatively contact DFES[permanent dead link] to find your local group,
  • If unsure call up "Sea Rescue" on Ch. 73, If you call up on VHF Ch.16 sea rescue groups will answer but will then direct you immediately to a working channel to keep Ch.16 clear for emergencies.


  1. ^ "Marine Rescue NSW :: About Us". Retrieved 6 September 2010. 
  2. ^ "Marine rescue groups unite - Local News - News - General - Great Lakes Advocate". 5 August 2009. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 6 September 2010. 
  3. ^ Guard, Coast. "Flotilla Locator - Australian Volunteer Coast Guard". Australian Volunteer Coast Guard. Retrieved 20 July 2014.  External link in |website= (help)
  4. ^ Margo Kingston (6 September 2001). "The Beazley vision". The Sydney Morning Herald.  — Kim Beazley's address to the Asia-Australia Institute at the University of New South Wales
  5. ^ "Transcript of the Hon Peter Reith M.P. address to the AAA National Party breakfast, Victoria Club, Melbourne" (Microsoft Word). 14 September 2001. 
  6. ^ Stuart Rosewarne (12 October 2004). "Engaging with the politics of fear: the Australian labour movement's fandango with the conservative putsch on the war against". University of Sydney. 

Further reading[edit]

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