"Ready to Respond"
Nearly twenty years ago, Baker Hardin, a retired American Army Radio Operator, sailed into Vava'u aboard S/Y Litenup. Mr. Hardin recognized very early on that the visiting yachties needed the support of one another, along with the expatriate and Tongan community. At the time of his arrival, no official Tongan government agency was responsible for Search and Rescue Operations. Baker created a volunteer group that called themselves the Vava'u Emergency Response Association (VERA). This group's primary purpose was to maintain a coastal watch on VHF channels to assist vessels in distress. Through years of successful assistance, VERA became well known to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) and the Tongan Police as a source of help when it came to Search and Rescue operations.
Because Vava'u lacked the assets to conduct Search and Rescue operations on the water, the visiting yachtie and local boating community would provide resources when requested and organized by VERA. In December of 2015, the Government of Australia provided three small Search and Rescue boats (one for each significant island group) and initial training to the Tongan Police. RCCNZ, under a South Pacific Maritime Training program, started meeting with Tongan officials to develop Search and Rescue Coordination training. Sadly, Mr. Hardin passed away in November 2016, leaving VERA without a very knowledgeable and highly experienced radio operator.
Several community members came together to keep VERA operating. The first formal training session with the Tongan Police Force from Tongatapu, Ha'apai, and Vava'u for Search and Rescue Training presented by RCCNZ was in Tongatapu in September 2017. VERA was invited to send a representative to the workshop, and Mr. Brian Meikle was honored to represent VERA. He had great discussions with the Acting Deputy Police Commissioner, Mr. Atunaisa Taumoepeau, RCCNZ Team Watch Leader Mr. David Wilson, and Senior Search and Rescue Coordinator Mrs. Chris Wilson during the workshop.
From those conversations, VERA was encouraged to formalize itself into a Tongan Incorporated Society (Not for Profit) and asked to consider changing its name to remove "emergency response". Since the Tongan Police are the official Ministry in Tonga with that designation and legal responsibility, VERA took the request under consideration. We also formally asked the Tongan Police if they would invite RCCNZ to do the same training in Vava'u with our local Tongan Police force, Marine and Ports, Customs and Immigration, and Disaster Response Office. RCCNZ performed this training in May 2018.
During the process of becoming a Tongan Incorporated Society, VERA changed its name to the Vava'u Volunteer Maritime Response Association (VVMRA). The Ministry of Commerce and Labour granted our license as an incorporated society (NGO), and we received our certification on the 8th of August 2018. In October of 2020, a memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Police of the Kingdom of Tonga and the incorporated society of the Vava'u Volunteer Maritime Response Association formalizing our relationship and assistance during Search and Rescue operations was signed by both parties.
Today, VVMRA promotes boating and water safety through educational programs, provides safety equipment, offers trip watch services for the Tongan Police and Customs boat crews, and assists with Search and Rescue operations with assets and communication coordination. We maintain a 24/7 VHF radio watch on Channels 16 and 26 and use the call sign "Vava'u Radio."
Thanks to our volunteers and those that support us, we are "Ready to Respond."