The Dhaka Navigator

The ‘Dhaka Navigator’ was a headline in the RNLI’s in-house magazine some twenty years ago. Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. Though back then, it was known as Dacca. And the ‘Navigator’ in question was my father.

In 1987, Bangladesh suffered catastrophic flooding. Over 22,000 square miles were affected, which is about 40% of the country. Hundreds of people lost their lives. Many more were made homeless. And the challenge to the country’s emergency services – getting to those in need, transporting aid, preventing the spread of disease – was immense.

Which is where my dad came into the picture. He was working at the RNLI’s HQ in Poole, with responsibility for the charity’s inshore lifeboat fleet. As a former merchant naval officer, he had travelled much of the world. And he recognised the devastation that the floods in Bangladesh had wrought.

Much of the resulting international relief operation was being organised by the Red Cross. They had people, supplies and expertise. But they had no way of getting them to where they were needed. And so they approached the RNLI.

Just days later, my dad and a colleague found themselves on a plane to Dhaka. Seconded to the Red Cross, he took with him ten decommissioned D Class lifeboats, which the RNLI had agreed to sell to the aid charity to help with its relief efforts. And my dad’s job was to teach local staff and volunteers how to use them.

Over the next few weeks, he taught rescuers and aid workers in Bangladesh how to operate the boats, how to navigate them and how to look after them. He worked with local people to bring aid and support to those who needed it. And he showed the people of Bangladesh that they were not alone. That they had friends across the world.

Upon his return, my father was saddened by the damage and loss that he had seen, but touched by the gratitude of those with whom he had worked during his time away. And the certificate of thanks, which he received from the International Committee of the Red Cross, was one of his most treasured possessions.

Today, the RNLI operates a small programme of lifesaving projects across the globe, working with local partners to help others to develop the lifesaving skills and expertise that we take for granted here in the UK. And these projects work. Whether training lifeguards, teaching people to swim or helping other countries to start their own lifeboat service, the RNLI’s international work saves lives.

It is not, of course, a huge part of what the RNLI does. The charity’s UK lifeboat stations and lifeguard units will always come first. But with drowning claiming some 320,000 lives each year around the world, it is incumbent upon us to use our skills and expertise to do what we can to help.

Because all lives are precious. And all those in distress are deserving of our support, regardless of race, religion or nationality. It’s what I think. It’s what my father, the ‘Dhaka Navigator’, thought. And I hope that it’s what you think, too.

You can find out more about the RNLI’s international projects here.

Family

For my family, the RNLI has always been a very special organisation. From the moment I first tentatively took the tiller of our little Mirror dinghy with the bright orange sails, it was clear to me that the sea could be a dangerous place – and worthy of our respect. But an even greater respect was due to those who would voluntarily set out onto it, often in the very worst conditions, to help others in distress.

With my Dad working with the RNLI on the coast (and me sometimes tagging along), I soon became aware of the effort that went into keeping the lifeboats and their crews ready to launch. But the more I visit other stations with ‘the little guys’ and the more I get involved with our own local station here at Portishead, the more amazed I become by quite how many people give so freely of their time and their skills in support of this unique organisation.

Volunteers

While even the most casual of observers would recognise that a lifeboat needs a crew, it often comes as a surprise that the operational crew may number in the twenties, each of whom gives up his or her time for regular training, as well as periodic courses at headquarters in Poole or elsewhere. And then there are the ‘shouts’, which can come at any time or day or night and require an immediate response.

And when the pagers go off, it’s not just the ‘boat crew’ who respond. Tractor drivers, shore crew and marshals are also vital if the boat is to be launched quickly and safely. And these volunteers likewise have their own programme of training (for all of which, incidentally, we have the station’s training officer to thank), even though some of them will be members of the boat crew, too.

Behind the scenes, there’s even more going on. Each station’s Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) performs a herculean task in keeping the operational side of things up and running. And both he/she and his/her team of Deputy Launch Authorities (DLAs) have the unenviable job of responding to alerts from the Coastguard and making the sometimes difficult decision of whether or not the lifeboat should launch.

Staying with the station itself, the wider role of the lifeboat station and the local community is the purview of the Lifeboat Management Group (LMG). Each station will also have its own Lifeboat Press Officer (LPO), who works tirelessly to promote the station’s work and to ensure that essential messages are communicated clearly and effectively in both mainstream and social media. And the Lifeboat Administrative Officer (LAO) and his or her team performs an equally vital role.

And lifeboats are expensive to develop, build and run. So fundraising also plays a huge role for any lifeboat station, with everyone (and I mean everyone) getting involved on a regular basis. All stations have a fundraising branch or similar group of fundraising volunteers, who work with the rest of the station staff to organise seemingly endless open days, fetes, collections, sponsored walks and the myriad of other activities that keep the charity, literally and metaphorically, afloat.

It’s not just stations that have fundraising branches, though. Virtually every town or village that I’ve ever been to across the UK, regardless of how near to or far from the coast, has its own team of fundraising volunteers. And they all work tirelessly to raise awareness of the work of our crews (and lifeguards, of course) and the funds that they need to keep going.

I could go on and on. I could talk about our station visits officers, who manage the daily flow of local people and groups in and out of the lifeboat station, or our education volunteers, who head out into the community to spread the word on coastal safety. I could talk about the volunteers who run our souvenir shops. I could talk about the many lifeguards around the coast, who help to keep our beaches safe. I could talk about the local employers who support our work, not least by being so understanding when members of the crew, pagers blaring, have to depart in a hurry. And I could talk about everyone who has ever dropped a few coins into a collection bucket or remembered the RNLI in their will.

It sounds a bit of a cliche, but it’s true. Without all of these people, the RNLI would not be the organisation that it is today. Without their support, our crews would not be able to launch their boats. Without their commitment, we would not be able to help those in distress. A very special organisation, yes. But also a very special group of people. A very special family.

All stations, all stations, all stations…

When my Dad first started working for the RNLI, back in the early eighties, one of his responsibilities was training his lifeboat crews in the art of VHF communication. And one his favourite toys was the so-called ‘mobile classroom’. Today, this might mean some kind of virtual environment that you can bink up on your laptop. But back then, it meant something very different.

Because the mobile classroom was exactly that. It was a very long Land Rover towing an even longer boxy trailer. And in the trailer was a fully kitted out VHF training suite, complete with radios, desks and everything else that students would need. His crews loved it. My sisters and I loved it. Our neighbours, and anyone else who might have wanted to park on our street, did not.

Possibly because of his years in the merchant navy, my Dad was a stickler for order and precision. So the clear and concise nature of VHF communications was right up his street. And it soon rubbed off on my siblings and me, too. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that not everyone has the phonetic alphabet as their second language.

My Dad also taught us that clarity and brevity doesn’t have to mean blunt and discourteous. Years later, when he, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law and I were sailing into some port or other on the Belgian coast (I forget which, though it was possibly Zeebrugge), we were wondering how to negotiate our way through the commercial traffic to the yacht harbour.

Ever the pragmatist, Dad reached for the VHF handset and raised port control.

“Good evening, sir. We are a nine metre sailing yacht heading for the yacht harbour. May we have your permission to pass through the port, please? Over.”

No doubt stunned at being on the receiving end of such British politeness from a rather scruffy German-flagged vessel, the port controller could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“Good evening to you, too, sir. A very warm welcome to Zeebrugge (or wherever we were). You are clear to pass through the port. And please have a most excellent stay.”

I feel more than a little regret that I didn’t get my Dad to pass on to me more of his nautical skills. My splicing, for example, still leaves rather a lot to be desired. And I’m more than a little ropey when it comes to using a sextant. But the ability to communicate clearly, calmly and concisely, taught to me by my Dad all those years ago, is something that I will cherish forever.

On duty: A story from the past

You’ll recall from previous blog posts that my Dad worked for the RNLI for nearly twenty years. Much of that time was spent out on the east coast of England, first as Deputy Divisional Inspector and then as the Divisional Inspector. But in between these roles, he spent a few years at the Institution’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. His title was Staff Officer (General Duties), or SO(GD).

We joked that this meant that he was responsible for making the tea, though in reality I suspect that his role went a little beyond that. He had the tiniest office that I have ever seen, just down the corridor from the operations room on the top floor of the RNLI’s stumpy-looking office building. Which was probably not a particular problem, as he never seemed to actually spend any time in it.

There was, however, one occasion when Dad had to be in the office. And that was when he was ‘on duty’. Basically, the rule was that there always had to be a senior person available in the operations room – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. During the working day, this clearly wasn’t a problem. But at night and over the weekend, someone had to stick around to be on the end of the phone.

As you’ve probably guessed, this was in the days before mobile phones and swanky tablets were the norm. So being on the end of the phone meant physically being in the building. This may well still be the case, of course, but I suspect that technology now offers a broader range of options to those who need to stay in touch.

Anyway, this responsibility was shared between about twelve of the senior staff, who took it in turns to spend evenings, nights and weekends on site, in case anything happened around the coast that required an immediate response. They even had a little hotel-style bedroom at the end of the corridor, which always looked really out of place in an office building.

Dad claimed that his ‘duties’ were a pain, but I think he liked having the run of the building and having the operations room – complete with its complex charts and whiteboards – to himself. And I’m pretty sure that he enjoyed having a break from me and my three sisters. I would say that he used the time to catch up on paperwork, but I think that anyone who knew my Dad would recognise that this is highly unlikely.

For someone who had spent most of his life either at sea with the merchant navy or travelling around the coast for the RNLI, I think that being in a houseful of screaming children always came as a bit of a shock to him. It was, I recognise now, in the operations room of the RNLI HQ, as on the bridge of a merchant ship or at the wheel of a lifeboat, that he was really at home.

A fishy tale

Our lifeboat crews come from all walks of life. They are builders, electricians, software engineers, estate agents, teachers, doctors, garden designers, bankers… well, I could go on. Back when my Dad worked as an RNLI Divisional Inspector, though, most of the crew members were maritime professionals. An on the east coast of England, that meant one thing. Fishermen.

I’m not talking about the people who sit on the end of the pier with a rod. I mean men – and, occasionally, women – who set out to sea in small boats to satisfy out appetite for all things seafood. Sea bass, sole, mackerel, plaice, whiting. Lobsters, crabs, oysters, prawns. You name it, they caught it. Because that was how they made their living and fed their families.

My Dad loved visiting those stations with a fishing fleet (which was most of them), because he was a big fan of seafood and could be guaranteed a good dinner of local fare. He also, over time, found that it was with seafood that his crews expressed their gratitude for the time and effort he spent helping them out.

He would frequently arrive home with a pair of fresh fish, explaining how he had found them – wrapped neatly – on the bonnet of his car that morning. My sisters and I were always thrilled with these discoveries, complete with bulging eyes (the fish, that is, not us), silvery skin and an aroma of the sea.

My mum, however, was not always so thrilled. On one occasion, Dad arrived home and announced that he had some fresh lobsters and crabs in the boot of the car. Mum opened the boot and reached inside, only to discover that our dinner was still very much alive. And, so to speak, running free range inside the car. We eventually managed to catch them all, but Mum was always a little more cautious after that.

On another occasion, Dad turned up with some live prawns. More used to frozen crustaceans from the supermarket, Mum boiled up a pan of water on the hob and threw the prawns in. The prawns, knowing what was good for them, promptly jumped out again. It was only at this point that my Dad, overcome with laughter, suggested that she might like to put them in cold water and slowly bring it to a boil.

While lifeboat crew members may no longer all make their living from the sea, this connection to our coastal waters remains in the work that they do. But the sea is now much more than a place of work. It is a place of leisure and of exploration. As well as a source of food. And I, for one, am still a big fan of a nicely cooked piece of pollock or of a succulent crab sandwich. My mum, it may not surprise you to hear, is now a vegetarian.