Saving Lives at Sea for Over 150 Years

There are few institutions across the global maritime community that garner greater respect and admiration than DGzRS – the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger, also known internationally as the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service. Patrolling Germany’s coastline since 1865, the team of fulltime personnel and devoted volunteers that make up DGzRS continues to save people from distress at sea. 

<p>Michael Müller</p>

Michael Müller

When Michael Müller the coxswain at Laboe – the busiest German search and rescue (SAR) station answering about 130 calls a year – was asked about his personal experiences of responding to emergencies at sea in all conditions imaginable, his short, polite answer perfectly depicted the hugely professional yet sincerely modest and respectful mind-set you would expect for someone in his position. 

“There is a lot I could mention – some to smile about, some sorry states of affairs. But I’m not a teller; it’s bad manners. I hope to find understanding from your readers.”

Michael is one of the 180 full-time employees at DGzRS (the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger, also known internationally as the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service) that, together with a further 800 professionally trained volunteers, are on call on 20 rescue cruisers and 40 rescue boats at stations spanning Germany’s North Sea and Baltic Sea coastlines. From the island of Borkum that sits a few kilometers of the northwest German mainland (and is in fact closer to the mainland of the Netherlands than Germany), to the northeast towns of Ueckermünde and Zinnowitz close to the Polish border, 54 stations ensure rescue operations are carried out quickly, co-operatively and as safely as possible.  

“Nine of our lifeboat men at Laboe are professional seamen like me; four of them are constantly on duty for two weeks – day and night,” said Michael who, previous to his last 18 years as a lifeboat man, was a professional sailor. “We live on board our vessel. In case of emergency, we go out the harbour within three minutes.”

About 30 voluntary crew members support operations at Laboe; a structure that is reminiscent of one third of all DGzRS stations. The larger majority of stations are run solely by volunteers.

Independent Organisation 

DGzRS was founded on 29th May 1865. Since then, this independent organisation, supported entirely by donations and voluntary contributions (approximately 300,000 regular contributors and members at last count) has worked towards one simple goal: saving people from distress at sea.

SAR Vessel

In 2015, DGzRS rescue crafts were launched 2,091 times; crews were able to save 55 lives in distress; 540 people were freed or protected from serious danger; and in 941 of the cases, the crews were involved in salvaging or providing vital assistance to vessels. These numbers do not take into consideration a further 400 call-outs to transport injured or sick persons from ships or islands back to the mainland. In total, DGzRS calculates the selfless, determined and courageous actions of its crews have saved over 82,000 lives since 1865.  

“The hub for communications is The Bremen Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) where distress calls and all emergency notifications converge and missions are coordinated.” The MRCC is in direct telephone contact with the Rescue Co-ordination Centre (RCC) in Glücksburg (the German Army’s SAR service). The MRCC on within current events so this is a chance for all the clubs to come together, all potentially on the same course and racing at the same time, and it just seems to be a good, friendly and social atmosphere. It’s brilliant, and if the event continues in this way, that will be amazing.” 

The DGzRS Family Tree

These lifeboat men and women are just as revered today as their counterparts – and ancestors – were in past generations. “The people consider it a great honour, but for our crew members themselves, it is mostly a matter of course to follow a pager call under every weather condition,” explained Christian Stipeldey, press spokesperson at DGzRS. To give you a clearer picture of the proud family ties associated with DGzRS, Christian said: “Asked by a journalist about his motivation, a voluntary coxswain said: ‘My grandfather was a lifeboat man, my father was a lifeboat man, my brother is a lifeboat man, I am a lifeboat man. We are able to do that, so it has never been a question for us to do it. We are no heroes, we are professionals.’ Listening to young colleagues, you can find the same attitude today.” 

The lifesaving influence of some of the families has even resulted in a number of SAR vessels named in their honour. “Units such as VORMANN STEFFENS (‘coxswain Steffens’) or VORMANN LEISS show the long-standing selfless commitment and involvement of whole families for our institution,” added Christian. 

Michael agreed. “Yes, in the past more than today, but tradition is important for our station and I think also for our institution and our work in general. For example, all three Laboe DGzRS’ station buildings since the founding of our station in 1894 are well-preserved and in excellent condition even though the two older ones remain in private hands today.”

Helping Others in Need

Michael’s first experience of the DGzRS was when he was fishing as a teenager. “My friend had an allergic reaction to a weeverfish bite. A DGzRS rescue cruiser brought him ashore safely.” This experience left its mark on Michael too. “For me, being a seaman and helping others in need is the best thing since sliced bread.” 

Whilst the MRCC coordinates all measures in a SAR situation, Michael said that as the coxswain, he is responsible for the rescue unit and his crew; the final decision to launch the lifeboat or not is in his hands.

“In the face of the risks of our mission nobody can be ordered into the storm,” he said. “But we have never stayed at the harbor when our help was required, never mind the weather. 

“Sea rescue is team work; a well-rehearsed team, counting on each other in extreme situations. Our many, many donors are likewise important; they are our sinews. Without them, we could not go out. I have great respect for those people.”

Two New Vessels Needed Annually 

As for the vessels themselves, DGzRS’s rescue fleet is, by international standards, considered amongst the most modern and efficient in existence. The cruisers, along with the smaller boats, are both built using saltwater proof light alloys, with a tried and tested grid frame design that offers excellent seaworthiness and self-righting capabilities. 

The maths equations of 60 rescue units each spending roughly 30 years in service means DGzRS has an ongoing newbuild programme, aiming to christen two new rescue units a year. 

The Spendenlotse (‘donation pilot’) is DGzRS’s online fundraising tool. Dragging a digital ship-shaped collection box across the donation bar enables a donator to see what their money could be spent on; a €5 donation could see the printing of a new DGzRS flag; a €5,000 contribution would pay for a new life raft. But don’t let the tool’s €5,000 limit restrict you. If you want to foot the bill for a new multi-million euro vessel, there’s an option to put in your own amount too! 

On the subject of vessel builds, Laboe’s rescue cruiser BERLIN will be replaced at the end of 2016 with a state-of-the-art SAR cruiser and daughter boat. The new BERLIN is the second ship of the completely redesigned 28m class, which will gradually replace the proven 27.5m class across the fleet.

Such is the relentless and dangerous nature of the tasks carried out by DGzRS’s crew and volunteers across the German coastline, fundraising is a never ending issue too. To add your contribution, please visit: www.spenden.seenotretter.de