Lifesaving volunteers are busier than ever

Published date: 26 February 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


LAST year was one of the busiest ever for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution as extreme weather hit the UK.

This year does not look as though it will be any better; rains have  left our fields sodden, our coast is eroding and homes and infrastructure have been damaged by high winds.

Across Wales, lifeboat launches have increased by 13 per cent and the number of people rescued has risen by 23 per cent, compared with the previous year.

I joined Flint RNLI for one of its training sessions.

For those who have not tried to put a dry suit on before, it is a bit like trying to climb into a giant marigold glove.

Lucy Coughlan, 23, grinned at me as the RNLI volunteers clambered into their own suits and grabbed their kit.

“You can imagine it gets a bit hectic in here when a call comes at 3am, and the adrenaline is going, and everyone’s racing to get changed,” she said.

This was a drill. The volunteers train regularly, mostly at weekends because they work or study, to keep their skills sharp for the real thing.

They carry a pager with them at all times, although there is a rota, and they have to be able to get to the station within two minutes once an alert goes out.

The RNLI is 100 per cent charity funded, despite the organisation – to my mind at least – being another arm of the emergency services.

According to Bill Dewsbury, 50, mechanic, driver and land support, the Government-funded Coastguard, acts as the “eyes and the ears”.

When a boat is sinking during a storm, or a swimmer has been swept out to sea, it’s the unpaid volunteers who do the heavy lifting.

The crew patrols the Flintshire coast, from Talacre and up the Dee towards Chester.

They operate out of a station in Flint, perhaps the only one in the country where the lifeboat shed overlooks the road rather than the sea.

“It’s generally faster to go by road than by sea,” said Bill, as the class-D onshore lifeboat was hitched to the back of a hefty 4x4. “We launch from two sites, Connah’s Quay and Greenfield, although we do go from Mostyn sometimes.”

I’d signed on as an associate (prospective volunteer) for the day. I don’t live close enough to the lifeboat station yet, but it’s something I’ve been interested in for a while.

With two crews assembled, we piled into the 4x4 and set off for the Greenfield launch slip.

Oddly, the subject of climate change came up without me suggesting it. I simply asked about Davina the dolphin, who made waves in August last year when she got lost up the Dee.

Sean Ashton, 20, a relatively recent addition to the crew, said: “We sort of knew it was coming. We were on standby to deal with the dolphin. It would have been best if she’d made it out of there, but the moment she got stranded, we knew we had to do something.

“I was on the crew that day. I’d never been that close to a wild dolphin. In fact, I’d never seen one before, not even at a SeaLife Centre.

“The procedure was actually fairly simple. It wasn’t any more difficult to pulling someone out of the water.

“We just got her on a stretcher and carried her out to sea. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Liam Jones, 17. “What with climate change and everything.

They say it’s changing the way animals behave.”

If nothing else, it’s difficult to argue against the perception that British weather is becoming more unpredictable.

Operations manager Alan Forrester said: “It is getting worse. We were called out recently due to high winds and bad weather – I’d never seen waves that big.

“They were lifting the boats practically up on to the harbour walls. There’s more and more inland flooding as well. We assisted in St Asaph during the floods there. But with the weather getting more extreme, the last thing we want is to take RNLI boats away from the coast.

“That’s why we need flood rescue teams set up across the country.”

At Greenfield dock the team got to grips with a new launching mechanism which allowed them to park the 4X4 as ballast and use a rope to lower the lifeboat into the water.

“We’ve adapted to this because the mud at Connah’s Quay is too bad to risk bringing the 4x4 down and stranding it,” said Alan. “We learn new things all the time.”

I was allowed into the lifeboat once it was afloat.

“Don’t let them throw you out,” said Bill, with a wink.

Crouching on the rubber-floored boat, I grabbed on to one of the ropes that emerged from the inflatable sides.

James Davies, 23, helmsman, stayed within eye-sight of the slipway, looping the craft in wide circles across the tea-brown sea.

James took us to within a whisker of an anchored boat without so much as bumping sides.

Bill would later remind me that such manoeuvres weren’t showing off; the ability to pull in next to a stricken vessel or a precarious outcrop without damaging the boat or putting lives at risk was vital.

I couldn’t imagine how difficult that would be in the dark, in lashing rain and howling wind.

James gunned the engine, which was capable of pushing the boat along at 25 knots, and I hunkered down.

The lifeboat itself is an impressive piece of kit, with a newly updated GPS system and an agile way of skimming the waves.

James guided us safely inshore, and I clambered out to let the crew begin their main exercise.

Times are changing, Bill revealed, as I returned to the lifeboat station.

“We record everything with headcam these days, because people have been known to sue the charity after a rescue. Yes, really,” he said, seeing my startled expression.

“That said, we get a lot of support from the public. Fundraisers, legacies, things like that keep us afloat.”

There is good reason for this. In its 47-year history, Flint lifeboat has guided lost boats, brought crews safely to harbour, and saved cattle, dolphins, fishermen, stranded swimmers and assisted in missing-person hunts.

And if the weather is getting worse, they need all the help they can get.

l What do you think? Email with your views.

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