Citizen of the Year Geoff Shelton

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He’s well known in local circles as a marine and boating expert …Geoff Shelton has been a member of Port Macquarie Marine Rescue for 29 years, has been involved with multiple sea rescues and proudly volunteers with several other local organisations. Awarded the honour of being recognised as Port Macquarie’s Citizen of the Year by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council earlier this year, Geoff shares his passion for all things maritime …

Hi Geoff. What led to your interest in working in the maritime field?

I first went to sea with my father out of Sydney Harbour when I was eight and just like a fish, I was hooked. I have worked as a professional fisherman, professional diver, fishing charter captain, dive charter captain, river cruise captain (the original Port Venture) and rescue boat captain. I love interacting with people and sharing my knowledge with others. Joining what was then the Port Macquarie Sea Rescue Group just seemed like the right fit. So was becoming a maritime teacher.

You’ve been a member of Port Macquarie Marine Rescue for 29 years. What can you tell us about this organisation?

Starting out as the Port Macquarie Sea Rescue in 1971, the organisation now has more than 143 members involved in manning the radio base 24/7 every day of the year, manning the rescue vessels for the same period and fundraising. Marine Rescue Port Macquarie has on average 80 call outs a year, ranging from simple towing of broken down vessels right through to assisting the police searching for missing persons and responding to vessels sinking or on fire.

What’s a rescue conducted at sea you were involved with that left a lasting impact on you?

On the 5th September 2009, a vessel called Unique capsized at 2:30pm due to the combined effects of the shifting of their fish catch and the free surface effect of taking on water from a wave. At that time, they were 25 nautical miles north east of Port Macquarie in 400 m of water. I spent more than half an hour on my laptop working out a probable drift pattern and then a possible position. At 7pm we departed Port on the rescue vessel and steamed for more than two hours east/southeast to a possible position I had calculated, which was more than 23 miles offshore.

We arrived at the possible position at approximately 9:05pm and began a drift test (this is a test we developed here in Port Macquarie to determine the direction and speed of the current after previous similar searches). Five minutes into the test, one of the lookouts on the flybridge reported seeing a tiny red light. We abandoned the test and steamed in that direction. We only went 100 m and heard their yells before we saw them. It was an amazing sight; when we turned the spotlight around, the three crew members were clinging to the hull of their upturned vessel. They had spent more than seven hours and twenty minutes in the water and had drifted 13.5 nautical miles (25 kilometres) and averaged a speed of 1.8 knots (3.5 km) from a position off Crescent Head to a position off Tacking Point Lighthouse.

The rescue vessel returned to Port Macquarie at 11:50pm to be greeted by anxious relatives and paramedics. I can’t describe my pride and satisfaction knowing that using my knowledge and experience had saved the lives of three persons.

You’ve also been involved with several other organisations, including the Port Macquarie Blue Water Club and the Port Macquarie Foreshore Protection Association. Why do you enjoy volunteering with groups such as these?

I first moved to Port Macquarie with my family in 1965, when I was ten (almost a local!) I moved up and down the coast with work, but always came back to Port, because I love the place and people.

In 2007 there was a proposal to commercially develop parts of Westport Park. Two other people and I formed a group called CROWN, Community Rescue of Westport Now, which later became the PM Foreshore Protection Association. With the fantastic help of Lynn Lelean from Prime TV, we lobbied hard and eventually won to stop the development. It’s quite funny in hindsight; with Lyn’s help we made out we had hundreds of members, but in reality we were only three.

In July 2011 I was personally invited by the then Premier of NSW to the announcement that Westport Park will become a Public Recreation Reserve.

I have also worked on – and I’m still working on – the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council Foreshore Working Party; I’m the ministerially appointed Community Representative on the State Governments Foreshore Land Advisory Group; President of the Port Macquarie Blue Water Fishing Club; and the ministerial appointed Mid North Coast Representative on the Recreational Fishing Salt Trust Expenditure Committee (RFSWTEC).

To answer your question, I hate it when people say, “The Government should do something”, or “Why don’t the Council do something?” I love this area and I think if you believe in something strongly enough, then it’s up to you to act and get involved, not just whinge.

You’re no stranger to working with both local and state government authorities. What have been some of the significant achievements you’ve been able to help implement locally because of your lobbying efforts?

The stopping of the development of Westport Park as mentioned above, but also lobbying the State Government to install a Fish Aggregating Device (FAD) off the coast of Port in 2014, but on a larger scale, again lobbying the State Government, through the fishing license money for the installation of the state’s third offshore artificial reef in 2016, which will have social, environmental and economic benefits to the district for many years to come.

Managing the Maritime Studies section at TAFE in Port Macquarie, Ballina, Coffs Harbour and Maclean must be an interesting role. What are some of the courses you help coordinate?

We teach students to become commercial captains of fishing vessels, charter vessels and cruise vessels. I have also developed and instruct government employees (fisheries and maritime) on the correct techniques on crossing bars.

Given the recognition you’ve received over the years for your maritime work, including a national medal for long and diligent service to the community of Port Macquarie and a NSW Maritime Medal for services to the boating public, how did you feel when you were acknowledged once again by being awarded Citizen of the Year by Port Macquarie-Hastings Council earlier this year?

This award was definitely the most gratifying, because it comes from the community. In my acceptance speech I spoke about the strong bond we share here in the Hastings. Even though I have lived back in Port for the past 28 years, when the Community Groups of the Year were read out, all fourteen of them, I had only heard of half of them. It’s a real eye-opener when you realise how many people volunteer to help our community.

What do you like to do in your “down-time”?

When I get a chance, I go fishing, gardening, fishing, socialising, fishing, boating and sometimes I go fishing.

Thanks Geoff. Interview by Jo Robinson.

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