As high waves caused by adverse weather swept three people out to sea in spain this week, prompting a search that lasted days, little is often said about some of the people who risk their lives to try to save ours, when the need arises.
One such group of people who work tirelessly patrolling the waters of the peninsular are the teams of coastguard search and rescue operatives and, within that group, there are a specialist collection of people who are highly trained in the need for the survival of life that they constantly push themselves into the mouth of danger, in order to pluck those on the drink of death back from a watery grave.
On board the helicopters dispatched to maritime rescues, the usual crew is formed of 4 members. Although every one of these men and women show incredible courage every day, it is perhaps the Rescue Swimmer who is often overlooked for the vital role that they play.
A role in which Kevin Costner brought to the mainstream audience in the 2006 film The Guardian, spain has a surprising number of these unsung heroes, in fact, across the entire continent of Europe, one in every four Rescue Swimmers in Spanish.
As the fourth member of crew on board the helicopter, along with the pilot, co-pilot and winch operator, the swimmer´s role is to be dropped from the helicopter via the winch, assess the situation and condition of the victim, usually in a hostile or volatile environment, and try to work out the best possible means of extraction, all within a matter of moments.
But their roles go beyond that of hopefully plucking victims from the jaws of death, they are also trained in offering help and assistance for none emergency and life threatening situations, such as delivering and operating bilge pumps to sinking vessels in the open water, delivering spare parts for stricken vessels, or even collaborating with medical crews on board ships in preparation for evacuation in the case of sickness, add to that inspections of fishing boats and monitoring and checking for poachers, all of which are carried out in both simulated training exercises, or in real life emergencies. In fact, the swimmers are tested at least every six months to determine that they come up to the required standard.
Each swimmer has at least two years flight experience on board a helicopter, the job usually operated before this role being the winch operator, so as they are fully aware of the requirements of the operation that will soon see them launched into the sea.
As the chain of command in important in such operations, the swimmer is known as the Head of the Rear Cabin, and as such instructs the winch operator to ensure that they are in full control at all times. Of course the Captain of the helicopter maintains full and overall responsibility, and with modern helicopters being able to maintain a safe hover automatically, all eyes can be on ensuring a safe and smooth rescue.
In Spain, there are currently 400 such Rescue Swimmers, the highest number in any country in Europe. Perhaps not surprising given the fact that it is an island, the uk is in second place with 113 swimmers, plus another 30 or so who are solely military personnel.
The Spanish swimmers operate from 11 bases of the Servicio de Salvamento Martítimo del Estado, based in Gijón, Santander, Coruña, Cee, Jerez, Almería, Valencia, Reus, Palma de Mallorca, Tenerife South and Las Palmas, as well as a coast guard base in Galicia.
From their eight AW139 and three Sikorsky S61N helicopters, the slogan that “Nobody gets left behind” is one that we can only hope to never have to experience, but as a philosophy that guides these professionals, we know that they will do everything within their power to save us.