What began as a voluntary stint at Marine Rescue has blossomed into a fully fledged maritime career for Tom Dragutinovich.
The 19-year-old had his eyes set on a future in engineering, but has now changed tack, accepting an offer of enrolment at the Australian Maritime College in Tasmania.
He was just one of 35 students offered a place in the prestigious Bachelor of Nautical Science course.
Mr Dragutinovich is one of Marine Rescue Port Kembla's 75 dedicated members, keeping an eye on the waters off the Illawarra coast and in Lake Illawarra.
They are the volunteers who crawl out of bed in the middle of the night when there's an emergency off our shores, towing in stricken vessels, searching for missing boats and, sadly, occasionally locating bodies in the water.
The Hill 60 patrol tower is manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, tracking the comings and goings of boat owners who register their journeys.
Although demanding and often dangerous work, unit commander Peter Purnell said he thoroughly enjoyed making a difference in people's lives.
"You're giving back to the community - we like boating and we like helping people," he said.
"Every time you bring someone back you get a buzz."
Mr Dragutinovich said volunteers were highly skilled and worked well in their close-knit crews.
"It's really about trusting each other and trusting the boat," he said.
Two years ago volunteers took delivery of an impressive new $300,000 vessel fitted with the latest technology.
Last year the boat, named after long-serving volunteer Alex (Shorty) Mathieson, carried out 98 of the Illawarra's 130 ocean rescues - sometimes heading out multiple times during the night.
"It's certainly looking after people, we get called out at all hours," Mr Purnell said.
Volunteers work closely with water police and NSW Maritime officers to carry out rescues.
For more information visit Marine Rescue Port Kembla on Facebook.
Marine Rescue volunteers can also be nominated in the Pride of the Illawarra Emergency Services Awards at www.prideoftheillawarra.com.au.