Do the Crew have names? Sure they do.

One of the questions I get asked the most when I’m out and about with the Crew is whether each of the little guys has a name. And my answer is always the same. Of course they have names. In fact, they even have day jobs, families and hobbies, too. So I thought it’s about time I introduced them properly.

So here’s The Lifeboat Crew. They may not be very big, but what they lack in stature, they more than make up for in enthusiasm, skill and tenacity.

We’ve got:

[L-R] Mechanic Dave, Coxswain Bob, Crew Member (and doctor) Jackie, Crew Member Steve, Crew Member (and ace helmsperson) Susie and Deputy Coxswain Anna.

The Crew

Let’s learn a little more about each of them.

Coxswain Bob has been a member of the crew for the past twenty years and has been coxswain for the last six. As Coxswain, Bob’s responsible for the boat and for the crew. This includes making sure that the boat is ready to go at all times and that the crew have everything they need to operate safely. When the crew are out on a shout, he’s in charge of the boat and responsible for all of the boat’s and the crew’s operations.

Bob was born and brought up on the coast and his father was on the lifeboat crew for as long as Bob can remember. After finishing school, Bob went away to work but the lure of the sea was too strong and he eventually found his way back here – though this time with a wife and kids in tow. Even though his dad had retired from the lifeboat crew by then, it didn’t take long for Bob to sign up.

Read an interview with Coxswain Bob.

Deputy Coxswain Anna helps Coxswain Bob to manage the crew and fills in for him when he’s away. And she was the first female crew member in the station’s history. In addition to her work with the boat, Anna runs the station’s programme of outreach activities in local schools, helping to teach children about water safety and the work of the lifeboat service.

A former secondary school English teacher, Anna joined the crew about ten years ago, when she first moved to the coast from London. She was looking for a way to get involved with the local community and a friend suggested that Anna volunteer at the lifeboat station. Anna suspects that her friend probably had the souvenir shop in mind, but when Anna saw that they were looking for members of the lifeboat crew itself, she just had to give it a go.

Read an interview with Deputy Coxswain Anna.

Mechanic Dave is responsible for the maintenance of the lifeboat’s engines and for all of the machinery at the station. This includes the tractor, the winch in the boathouse and everything else that the crew use. He also keeps an eye on the condition of the boat itself, as well as the boathouse, so that he can tell when other repairs or maintenance are needed. And when the crew go out on exercise or on a shout, Dave keeps an eye on the engines and the other bits of mechanical kit, to make sure that everything’s running smoothly.

While the rest of the crew are volunteers and have to fit their responsibilities around their day jobs, for Dave this is his day job. He’s the only paid, full-time member of the Crew, so the lifeboat station is his place of work. When the crew go out on a shout, though, he’s a volunteer like everyone else. He’s also extremely organised. Because with the lifeboat having to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, he can’t leave a job half-done. There’s no taking something apart and then wandering off for a cup of tea.

Read an interview with Mechanic Dave.

Crew Member Jackie is a general practitioner at the town’s medical centre. She’s also mother to three young children: Rachel (twelve), Sarah (nine) and ‘little’ Archie (seven). Jackie sees patients at the surgery on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, so isn’t usually available for ‘shouts’ during the daytime on those days, but on Tuesdays and Fridays – as well as in the evenings and at weekends – she’s a lot more flexible and can go out on the boat if her pager goes off.

While all members of the crew are given casualty care training, which allows them to deal with most of the medical situations they’re likely to face, it’s often helpful to have a doctor on board, too. And if the crew need advice when Jackie’s not there, they can get put through to the surgery so that she or one of her colleagues can help them. A keen watersports enthusiast, Jackie’s well known around the town – whether in the surgery or charging down the street, beeping pager in hand.

Read an interview with Crew Member Jackie.

Crew Member Steve joined the station’s shore crew at first and was asked to join the boat crew a couple of years ago. A keen sailor from a nautical family, Steve’s day job is working for the harbour master, so he’s on the water practically twenty four hours a day. Especially in the summer, when the arrival of hundreds of tourist yachts – and the station’s busiest time of the year – keeps him on his toes.

Steve confesses that, while his pager going off still gives him a bit of an adrenaline rush, it’s become much more of an automatic reaction now. He just stops whatever he’s doing, makes sure he’s leaving everything safely, and gets to the lifeboat station as quickly as he can. As with the rest of the crew, Steve’s family and colleagues all know the deal and are extremely supportive of the station’s work.

Read an interview with Crew Member Steve.

Crew Member Susie is a garden designer who recently set up her own design practice with a group of friends. And one of the consequences of this job change was that she finally had the time and the flexibility to join the lifeboat crew. Her office is only a couple of hundred yards from the lifeboat station, so she’s usually one of the first there when the crew’s pagers go off. Much to the amusement of her colleagues, though, when she charges out of the building, in her words, ‘like an impatient rhino’.

When Susie first meets any of her clients, she explains that she’s on the crew and that she might need to go off on a shout. Thankfully, she says, they’re always really great about it. Susie thinks that her parents, though, who also live in the town, would much prefer it if she ‘stayed at home and prepared planting plans and things like that’. So when she gets back from a shout, she always remembers to give them a call to say that she’s arrived home safely.

Read an interview with Crew Member Susie.

A festive start to the new year

The run-up to Christmas is always a busy time of year, even if you’re only a couple of inches tall. The little guys were delighted, therefore, that their friends at RNLI Portishead had decided to wait until the new year for their festive meal and get-together.

And so, last Friday evening, the little guys got dressed up (well, got dressed, which is about as much as we can hope for around here) and headed down to the H&W pub/restaurant overlooking the town’s marina.

Meal 1

The first thing that the Crew noticed was that the pub’s upstairs dining room was absolutely heaving, with over a hundred people greeting each other warmly and finding somewhere to sit. The second thing they noticed was that all of these people were crew, fundraisers, station officials and otherwise connected to the lifeboat station. A bit overwhelming, really.

Meal 3

Unabashed, the little guys quickly got into the festive swing of things. Crackers were pulled, new friends were mad (including most of the lovely waiting staff) and plans were hatched.

One of the plans, however, appeared to be the theft of my dessert…

Meal 4

Thankfully, I noticed in time and quickly put a stop to such shenanigans. That’ll sort them out.

Meal 2

It was a fantastic evening, though, and the little guys, Natalie and I had a truly awesome time. A massive thank you to the tireless Helen, the station’s press and publicity officer, for putting together such a great event. And thank you, too, to the brilliant staff of H&W for making us all so welcome.

Looking back at an awesome year

It’s been an awesome year for the little guys.

For a start, they’ve visited and learned about a whole host of lifeboat stations around the country, from the Lizard down in Cornwall to Oban up on the west coast of Scotland.

And they’ve met some truly fantastic people along the way.

They’ve helped to promote important safety messages and have been keen supporters of the RNLI’s ‘Respect the water’ campaign.

They’ve done their bit to raise funds to support the work of our lifeboat crews and lifeguards around the country.

And they’ve been welcomed into the RNLI family at Portishead lifeboat station, the newest station in the RNLI (although an independent station for twenty years) and home to an outstanding group of volunteers.

But the little guys are keen not to rest on their laurels. Having had such a great time last year, they’re determined to do even more in 2016.

They’re working on new safety messages and still have open invitations from a whole load of lifeboat stations around the country. They’re even looking into setting themselves up on Instagram. So watch this space.

And have an awesome year!

The little guys in Tighnabruaich

During their recent trip to Scotland, the little guys had the pleasure of spending a week in the rather excellent village of Tighnabruaich. Situated on the picturesque Kyles of Bute, Tighnabruaich is part of ‘Argyll’s Secret Coast’ and is a popular sailing destination for those intrepid enough to venture this far north.

The Crew had done some planning this time, so knew before they arrived that Tighnabruaich has its own lifeboat station. But they couldn’t wait to get down to the water’s edge to check it out for themselves. And here they are…

Tighnabruaich 2 TW

The station was founded in 1967 with a D class lifeboat, which was kept in a boathouse in the grounds of the Tighnabruaich Hotel. The station swapped the D class for a C class in the early 1990. In 1998, the C class was itself swapped for a larger Atlantic 75, which was in turn replaced by the station’s current Atlantic 85.

The present boathouse was built in 1997 and is situated right on the shores of the Kyles of Bute. It has a slipway for launching the boat as well as a new floating pontoon extending out towards the Isle of Bute. The station has a considerable operating area, too, stretching around the Cowal peninsula and well up into Loch Fyne – almost an hour from the station at top speed.

Tighnabruaich 4 TW

The station’s Atlantic 85 James and Helen Mason was launched in 2012 and, like the boat of the same class at the Crew’s home station of Portishead, has a crew of four and is powered by two 115 horsepower outboard engines, giving her a maximum speed of 35 knots. And here she is…

Tighnabruaich 12

Incidentally, the James and Helen Mason made waves at her naming ceremony by launching with an all female crew, including helm Kim Thomas, whom we had the pleasure of meeting during our visit. (And again the next day on the Tarbert-Portavadie ferry!)

The little guys had timed their visit to coincide with one of the station’s training sessions, so were delighted to meet Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) Ronnie and members of the crew. They hung out for a while in the crew room upstairs in the boathouse, learning about the station’s history, and were then invited (to their great excitement) to have a look around the boat hall.

Tighnabruaich 9

Like Portishead’s Atlantic 85, the James and Helen Mason is launched from a carriage, which is pushed out of the boathouse and down the slipway by a rugged County tractor. The tractor itself is marinised, which means that it can wade safely to a depth of 1.5 metres. (You’ll notice that RNLI tractor drivers wear lifejackets, too!)

Tighnabruaich 7

The little guys felt somewhat dwarfed by the tractor’s huge tyres, but that’s quite a common feeling when you’re only an inch and a half tall. And they were soon distracted by the Atlantic on her carriage, freshly washed and ready to launch at a moment’s notice.

Tighnabruaich 10

After a while, though, it started to get a bit late and the little guys (and the Tighnabruaich crew) were keen to get home for their tea. It was fantastic, though, to visit a station so similar to the Crew’s own and to learn how the Tighnabruaich crew operate in the challenging waters off the Scottish coast. (And the little guys had to admit that the scenery here is far nicer than at home – sorry Portishead!)

Tighnabruaich 1 TW

So a massive thank you to the crew at Tighnabruaich for their hospitality and for taking the time to show us around and to tell us all about their fantastic station. We hope to see you again soon!

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.