Operation Shirley – A Covert Marine Rescue Operation With A Difference

Marine rescue Volunteers Mark and Kathryn Clark with long serving member Mum Shirley Clark (centre).

SHIRLEY Clark is a stalwart in the Port Stephens volunteering community, having served at Marine Rescue Port Stephens for more than 40 years.

Recently Shirley was blindsided by her own family that decided to covertly sign up as Port Stephens Marine Rescue volunteers without Shirley finding out until it was a “done deal”.

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With Mark and Kathryn Clark fully inducted in Marine rescue to follow in the family tradition of volunteering to keep people safe.

Mark’s late father Kevin Clark was the first unit commander of what was known as the Volunteer Coastal Patrol that operated from a caravan before it grew into Marine Rescue Port Stephens (MRPS).

Shirley, his wife, would assist in fundraising and went on to become a marine radio operator for 20 odd years.

She has been working in the gift shop since 2002.

The two new recruits Mark and Kathyrn Clark dressed in Marine Rescue trainee uniforms and were about to secretly begin the third session of a training course when they stepped inside the gift shop.

“How come I don’t know anything about this?” The demand boomed inside the gift shop at Marine Rescue Port Stephens as Mark’s mother, 92-year-old Shirley – back in uniform and on duty – was gobsmacked.

The great woman, both in shock and surprise declared: “I don’t know what’s going on with my family . . . God stone the crows.

“How come you’ve got Marine Rescue T-shirts?” asked Shirley, pointing a finger at her son and daughter in law.
“Because we are new recruits”, said Kathryn.

“Because we are members”, Mark backed up his wife.

“Oh, you’re joking . . . How come I don’t know anything about this?” asked Shirley.

The covert “Operation Shirley” had been perfectly executed.

A dedicated member of more than 40 years, great grandmother Shirley stood up, hugged both her youngest child and his wife and said: “I can’t get over it.”

Only a handful of members at MRPS were aware of Operation Shirley, which began on 22 May this year when 65-year-old Mark and his wife secretly drove from their Castle Hill home in Sydney to be at the Induction night to become trainees.

Under the cover of darkness they have snuck into town six times and driven back to Sydney unbeknown to Shirley.

“By the time we leave our home, do the training course and drive back to Sydney it is about an eight-hour operation.”
Mark Clark said.

“We have both been training secretly from mum to become Marine Radio Operators and hopefully do rescue boat duty.

“We have not sold our house in Sydney yet and are not sure where we will retire, but whether it is somewhere in the Port or even the south coast, we will be part of a NSW Marine Rescue Unit,” he said.

As a diesel mechanic all his life Mark hopes to spend a lot of his retirement hours working on the Marine Rescue boats, and that could even mean working on the new addition to the fleet named in his mother’s honour the “Shirley Clark “.

The new PS 30 vessel will be launched for operations next month.

Mark’s wife Kathryn said only a few people from MRPS knew about what they had been doing and “[they] kept on asking us if Shirley knew about it.

“We had to wait until we got our uniforms before we could spring our little operation of surprise if you like.

“The vessel being named in her honour is just fantastic, but we really did this for sentimental reasons, if you like, to keep the legacy of the family community work going,” said Kathryn.

“She is still getting over the surprise of it all.”

MRPS Unit Commander Ben van der Wijngaart summed up “Operation Shirley”.

“This is such a wonderful surprise for Shirley and a testimony to her great contribution to the community,” he said.

“Hopefully this inspires other members of our community to join Marine Rescue Port Stephens to help saves lives on the water”.


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