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It’s a question that often crops up from first-time cruisers: What happens if something goes wrong in the middle of the ocean?

And while onboard medics and hospitals can handle most of what a cruise-ship complaint throws at them, sometimes a captain will simply have to summon Roger.

After 19 years in service, crew chief Roger Fry of the Westpac Life Saver Helicopter Rescue Service has almost seen it all – from tending to shark attack victims who are fast running out of blood to remote rescues in bushland.

And around five times a year, he or one of his colleagues fields a call from a cruise ship.

“We’ve had rescues on ships that have decks that extend eight levels above our landing pad,” Roger tells Cruise Passenger.

“It’s quite strange to have a ship chasing you, so to speak. In these cases, there’s not a lot of room for error. We had to just make sure we matched speed of the ship during the approach and landing.”

So what does a rescue entail?

Let’s rewind back to November last year. A 69-year-old woman aboard the Sea Princess with her husband presented with abdominal pains.

“We had to locate the ship – which, given its size, wasn’t all that difficult with the information supplied by current technology,” reveals Roger.

“The Australia Maritime Safety Authority helped co-ordinate our team. AMSA is based in Canberra and look after all ships at sea when an emergency occurs. AMSA is responsible for in one-tenth of the Earth’s surface in search and rescue coordination. We also liaise with the ship’s onboard medical team and captain throughout these types of missions.

“Our medical team jumped below deck whilst we remained on the helipad with engines running for about 25 minutes – until the patient was carried onto the helipad deck. We quickly prepared and secured our patient onto our helicopter stretcher and into the still running helicopter, minutes later we departed the Sea Princess and flew the 20minutes to Coffs Harbour Hospital. The ship was about 60 nautical miles off the coast of Coffs Harbour at the time, so this was the closest hospital.”

“That’s a fairly routine procedure, but this particular rescue was actually a bit trickier than usual. It was an interesting landing given that the ship’s helipad was on the bow (front). In these circumstances, it’s quite daunting when lining yourself up with the ship and moving across to it.”

Even more difficult are the rescues conducted at night.

“They’re more hazardous, due to the uncertainty of what’s around us,” tells Roger. Our aircraft and crew have been supplied and trained to night-vision goggle systems, but even with them, there are still times we must look at alternative methods to recover someone a night in a remote area. Light and depth perception requires the crews to be ever vigilant even with night vision goggles.”

But despite the challenges, the crew keep pushing for more developments to make sure the service is at the top of its game.

“In recent weeks, we received approval to transport blood on board our aircraft as another item to assist patients in the treatment and care – there were issues in storing and transporting the blood has to be turned around every 72 hours,” explains Roger. “Within three days of getting it installed, we were called out to help a shark attack victim – that blood was one of the reasons he’s still alive today.”

The Westpac Life Saver Helicopter Rescue Service is contracted by the NSW Department of Health. The majority of financial support comes from the community, through fundraisers, direct donations and events. The organisation operates on a budget of about $7 million each year, $4 million of this budget comes from our generous community, without their support rescues at sea with such well-maintained and equipped helicopters wouldn’t be possible.

How do you think cruise passengers could help support this life-saving service?

“Anywhere they see a Westpac Helicopter donation display, or passengers could go online at www.helirescue.com.au and donate to support this vital community service.”