TractorsA tractor on the beach for the rescue at sea

A unique station of the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service (Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiff­brüchiger, DGzRS) is located on the Baltic Sea Coast at Wustrow. It’s unique because the station is respon­sible for two different oper­a­tional areas at sea – and in order to cope with this chal­lenging task, the local Sea Rescue crew utilises a John Deere 6R 230.

When the thunder is rumbling in the distance and the narrow roads of the 1,000-soul-village Wustrow are suddenly cast into dark­ness, nobody really wants to leave the house: Including Silvia Priebe and her dogs. They live in a house near the Baltic Sea coast on the Fisch­land penin­sula, surrounded by water. But these are exactly the kinds of moments in which an alarm can sound on Silvia’s mobile phone. And when it does, she knows some­body is in distress at sea, which means they need help.

She then drops every­thing, gets on her bike and pedals as fast as she can to the historic DGzRS shed, which houses a dark red tractor. You have to take a second look to recog­nise it: This is a converted John Deere 6R 230.

I have to be able to drop every­thing from one minute to the next. You just cannot do this on your own.

Silvia Priebe, sea rescue volun­teer for the German Maritime Search and Rescue Service

“The sandy beaches here are flat and there aren’t a lot of harbours. But because we need to get on the water quickly in such situ­a­tions, we move our search and rescue vessel to the beach or to the Saaler Bodden, depending on where our help is needed,” Silvia explains.

The tractor supports them in this mission. It pulls the vessel named ‘Knut Olaf Kolbe’, which was built in 2023, to the beach or to the Bodden (a kind of lagoon but connected with the Baltic Sea) using a specially constructed three-axle trailer.

The JD 6R 230 fits into the historic 1905 rescue shed, almost as if it were built for the tractor.

Ready for trans­port: The search and rescue vessel “Knut Olaf Kolbe” is 8.4m long and is not lying afloat at the harbour but stored on a special three-axle trailer.

The main focus is saving lives

The boat is launched into the water there, and with a lot of momentum, the boat crew of three to four sea rescuers can set off to the scene of acci­dent. The reasons to deploy a maritime search and rescue team are diverse: Some­times, sailors suffer a broken mast in high winds, or the boat is taking on water; at other times, some­body drifts out to sea in a fishing boat, or a crew have lost their way in foggy condi­tions. Saving lives is almost always the main task.

Wustrow is located on the Fisch­land penin­sula, surrounded by water: The Baltic Sea is in the North­west, the Saaler Bodden is located to the South. (Map

The Society has been stationed in the former fishing and sailing village of Wustrow since 1866. Today, there are 18 volun­teer sea rescuers who are on call, and who decide among them­selves at short notice who can get out the quickest – around the clock, in all weather condi­tions. The rescuers have their mobile phones on them at all times. They are usually sailors them­selves or come from seafaring or sea rescue fami­lies, like Silvia’s. She remem­bers: “Even as a child, I expe­ri­enced my dad leaving for missions with his crew. The family always fully supported him in this. You cannot really do this by your­self.” The people in Wustrow have a close connec­tion to the water, the sea, the waves and the wind. How could it be other­wise?

The trans­for­ma­tion from land to a seaworthy machine

The red John Deere 6R 230 has been supporting the sea rescue team on the penin­sula since December 2023. Its advan­tages: It is quick, strong, agile and can drive into the water. Andreas Meier, from the John Deere dealer Hans Meier oHG near Wolgast, converted the tractor – which was orig­i­nally yellow and green when it left the Mannheim site. Andreas and his colleagues worked exclu­sively on this project (a solu­tion for sea rescuers) for six weeks. “I sat down with my work­shop team and let the ideas flow. Now the tractor can cope with salt­water without any prob­lems.” And he means this liter­ally.

The John Deere 6R 230 is looking pretty bare with only two wheels, no cab or bonnet.

The main job was to move the elec­trical and elec­tronic compo­nents from the bottom of the tractor to the top, so that it can drive into the water up to a depth of approx­i­mately one metre. The sailors call this ‘wading depth’, which is neces­sary so that the rescue boat can launch. The central elec­tronics of the tractor are now located in the footwell of the cab and the battery is in a sealed stain­less-steel container on the right side by the door.

Andreas removed all compo­nents suscep­tible to rust and had them sand-blasted and galvanised. The cab now has every­thing required for sea rescue: A marine radio, a winch mech­a­nism, two blue flashing lights and a horn. A winch pulls the lifeboat back onto the special trailer when it returns to the beach at high speed.

I sat down with my work­shop manager and let the ideas flow. Now the tractor can cope with salt­water without any prob­lems

Andreas Meier, John Deere dealer

Finally, a local varnisher in Wolgast painted the 6R in sea rescue red with black rims before the tractor was completely sprayed with corro­sion protec­tion. This protec­tion should with­stand wind and all weather condi­tions for 10 years before it needs to be renewed. The yellow-green deer between the head­lights still reveals its origin: This is a John Deere.

When the vehicle is on its way to a rescue mission with flashing lights and sirens, it does not need to stop for traffic lights or at crossing; it has right-of-way. Whilst Silvia drives the 6R, the usually three-strong team travel in a Toyota.

The 6R 230 in action: strong, maneu­ver­able and not afraid of water at all.

“From the top of the dunes, it is usually best to drive straight down to the water in one go,” she says. “That’s why one of my colleagues always checks first if some­body has dug a deep moat around a sand­castle or if any poorly visible rocks are obstructing my way. And if it’s beach weather and some­body is distressed at sea, people also have to get out of the way before I can drive across the sand with our trailer.”

Andreas tested the manoeu­vra­bility in sand with a farmer before he carried out the conver­sion. “The wide tractor tyres are really useful in soft sand. The top layer is usually dry, and the sand is fine. That means resis­tance is low and the wheels can spin. But if the weight is just right, it pushes its force down into the deeper, slightly moister layer of sand. Here, the tyres grip on and the tractor can use its pulling force.”

The tilting ability of the trailer ensures that the tractor does not have to drive too far into the Baltic Sea; but it can manage depths up to 1.2m.

Good visi­bility from the cab

Silvia really likes the all-round visi­bility from the cab; she really needs it when she is reversing the special trailer into the surf. When doing this, she has to make sure she is at a right angle to the waves, to make sure the trailer does not get damaged, and that the rescue vessel can set off without prob­lems. “I can shift the gears of the tractor with one hand, that is pretty easy,” says Silvia, who got her HGV driving licence eight years ago. She also has a recre­ational boat licence. It depends on the respec­tive compo­si­tion of the crew whether she also sets off on the water with the ‘Knut Olaf Kolbe’ or if she stays with the tractor. On those days when Silvia has to wait with the tractor for a long time, she is partic­u­larly grateful for her heated seats.

The search and rescue vessel is jet-driven rather than using a propeller. That’s why it can drive directly onto the beach when it returns from a mission.

The rescue vessel and her crew can then rush to the co-ordi­nates where they are needed, at a speed of up to 33 knots (61 km/h). A mission can take several hours, partic­u­larly, if people have gone over­board and a search has to be under­taken. SAR, Search and Rescue, is the mission of the sea rescuers. Once back onboard the boat, the rescued people are given First Aid before being returned to the beach at high speed. The red tractor then winches the boat back onto its trailer. Following each mission, the tractor, the trailer and the rescue vessel itself have to be cleaned thor­oughly using fresh water to increase their dura­bility.

Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrü­chiger

The Society is a charity (founded in 1865) which rescues people who are distressed or in dangerous situ­a­tions on the North and Baltic Seas. The sea rescuers work around the clock, 365 days a year and in every weather condi­tion. They are financed exclu­sively by dona­tions and volun­tary contri­bu­tions. The Society co-ordi­nates all search and rescue mission, provides medical First Aid and works closely with other maritime organ­i­sa­tions. Its crews are highly qual­i­fied and mostly volun­teers.

The tractor in Wustrow leaves its shed almost every weekend and prac­tises missions with the crew. Last year, the sea rescuers based at the Wustrow station attended approx­i­mately 20 serious situ­a­tions. And the Society attended about 2,000 missions in total in one year.

Land­maschinen Hans Meier ohG

Andreas Meier (first from the left) and three of his engi­neers are now experts in converting John Deere trac­tors for the German Sea Rescue Society. A John Deere 7730 was the begin­ning in 2010, which was used by sea rescuers in Zinnowitz on Usedom as well as by sea rescuers in Wustrow. He’s converting a 6R 230 at the moment, with special equip­ment for the Zingst station.