Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Herbert Meth, also known as Herby, has been the Lead and Trainer of the Ascension Island Sea and Land Rescue Service (AISLR) since 2021. Prior to this he was a Training and Development Officer with the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) in South Africa and a coxswain volunteer at NSRI Station 10 in Simon’s Town.   

In addition to the maritime training required to operate as a coxswain, he was also an instructor and assessor in the fields of electronic navigation systems, VHF SRC, personal survival techniques, swiftwater rescue, mental health first aid, whale disentanglement, maritime extrication (rope rescue), navigation & chartwork, and helming skills. 

With all of this in mind, Herby’s tenure at NSRI was the perfect platform to prepare for his current role as the Head of AISLR in an area prone to severe weather conditions not dissimilar to those found off the coast of Cape Town and the Western Cape. 

"The waters around Ascension Island can be dangerous. With rugged, volcanic shorelines, shallow reefs, strong undertows, uncharted areas and with a high presence of sharks, swimming in these waters can prove to be a high-risk activity. Several shark encounters have occurred over the years, and one grave incident required a medevac off the island," Herby said. 

The AISLR is a department within the Ascension Island Government. It currently has 18 volunteers, from St Helena Island, South Africa, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe, split into three crews of six personnel each. The island itself is part of the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of St Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. It is situated in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,200 n miles to the east of Brazil, 800 n miles to the west of Africa, with its closest neighbour being St Helena Island, 700 n miles to the southeast.

Herby noted that this geographical isolation poses a number of unique challenges for its search and rescue team, most notably when it comes to complex medical emergencies.

“One of the main challenges we face is dealing with the need for medevacs during serious emergency medical situations. From a general operations perspective, you must plan effectively as equipment and supplies are imported. The procurement and shipping process naturally takes longer than most other SAR organisations are used to. Recently the runway project came to conclusion meaning there are now more regular flights available.”

Credit: Ascension Island Sea and Land Rescue Service

Herby's primary focus is maintaining a state of readiness of crew and assets to respond to sea and land-based emergencies, facilitating theory and practical training for his volunteers and first responders, and managing the maintenance of his vessels, vehicles and equipment. 

For most SAR organisations, effective communications are a vital component of SAR operations. For Ascension Island, a reliable internet connection is not always available and, as Herby noted, this can cause problems for members of the public when they are in trouble.

"Many areas on the island and at sea do not have sufficient mobile phone coverage or internet connection. While there are useful apps to help ensure their safety, such as SAFETRX, many people are unable to access it due to the unstable internet connection available," he added.

Crew retention can also be challenging on a working island with a transient population as roughly half of the crew are only available for a short contract period of about two years. However, AISLR is fortunate to have a solid base of long-serving and experienced crew that provides stability for the local population.

They have a variety of public-use equipment that is strategically located around the island, which the public can use in a bystander rescue situation while waiting for help to arrive, including Pink Rescue Buoys, which won the IMRF’s Award for Innovation and Technology in Maritime SAR in 2018. 

Credit: Ascension Island Sea and Land Rescue Service

As the IMRF’s newest member, Herby noted that the chance to work with and learn from the wider SAR community remains vital as AISLR looks to maintain its operational effectiveness, particularly for a SAR organisation that has to some agree limited equipment and volunteers, not to mention challenging geographical obstacles. One invaluable addition to its fleet is the JetRIB that was acquired in September 2022. The JetRIB was invented by the NSRI and also won the IMRF’s Innovation and Technology Award in 2021.  

"The importance of building professional relationships with other SAR organisations is critical. It allows everyone to share stories, ideas, best practices and advances in training, development and technology. We are equally eager to learn from other SAR organisations as part of the IMRF and provide information on how to overcome difficult SAR operations in challenging geographical areas," he concluded.