RNLI Feature: The dangerous task of saving lives at sea

The Whitby lifeboat launches in rough seas. All pictures: Ceri Oakes
The Whitby lifeboat launches in rough seas. All pictures: Ceri Oakes

Whether it’s a fire on an oil tanker, children on a lilo swept out to sea, or a body found in the water, the RNLI must be prepared for anything.

The rough chop of the north sea has led to many call- outs for Whitby’s brave volunteer crew throughout the years – and the demand shows no sign of letting up.

Coxswain Mike Russell

Coxswain Mike Russell

The fierce tidal surge we witnessed recently provided a stark reminder of the power of the ocean, something that crew member of 30 years and current coxswain, Mike Russell, is all too familiar with.

In an interview with the Gazette at the lifeboat station, he explained what a tough task they face: “We’ve got to be prepared for anything. We are nearly always the first responders to incidents, so the crew must be well trained as paramedics, firefighters and lifeboat crew.”

Mike, who is set to retire in August this year, said it’s the camaraderie of the lads that’s so important to their work. “We have the sharp end of the stick really, we don’t get anything like counselling,” he said. “We have to deal with things in-house, among ourselves, often down the pub with some black humour to have a laugh.

“That’s the nature of the work we do – we have to deal with some horrible things.”

Crew member Shane Ingram inside the lifeboat

Crew member Shane Ingram inside the lifeboat

The 30-strong crew, including two full-time staff and 28 volunteers, must undergo extensive training to become fit for the testing role.

A tour around the crew’s Trent class lifeboat by station mechanic, Richard Dowson, brought home the complexity and training that goes into their work.

Entering the Trent class lifeboat, you are greeted by an array of equipment, including complex navigation kit and communications stations, with each of the seats assigned to a specific crew member, according to their expertise.

“The guys have to do so much training to be able to cope with all the kit,” said Richard. “It’s all about camaraderie and becoming a good crew.

Inside the lifeboat station.

Inside the lifeboat station.

“We could be going out for 12 hours plus, so we have to build up relationships. We like to have a laugh as well – like the nativity we did over Christmas.”

The nativity Richard refers to earned over 68,000 views online, and saw the crew visit pubs around Whitby looking for room for ‘Mary and Joseph.’

Richard spends much of his time below deck on the vessel, which is named George and Mary Webb, ensuring the 20-year-old boat’s twin diesel engines are in good working order.

The stretchers and seating, equipped with straps in the survivors’ cabin adjacent to the engine room give an insight into how terrifying being rescued in rough seas can be.

Crew member Richard Dowson

Crew member Richard Dowson

The signs on the hatches instructing them to be kept closed during dangerous seas provide a stark reminder of the dangers facing the RNLI crew who embark on such rescue tasks.

The lifeboat station itself is one of the oldest in the country, serving the area since 1802.

Many of the station’s crews have been recognised for their heroic efforts throughout history, with 36 medals awarded, five gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze. The last being awarded in 1993.

The sight of crew members rushing towards the station has attracted interest from visitors and residents for many years.

In the past, onlookers and tourists would stop to watch and listen as an alarm would sound to signal that the lads had been called out.

More recently, a pager system means that the volunteer crew members have to down tools at work or spring out of bed to launch as quickly as possible.

From the call coming in to the team being in the water can be as little as 10 minutes.

Members of the volunteer crew can sometimes be seen sprinting through the town centre when an emergency call comes in.

One crew member works for a bank and faces the unenviable task of hot-footing it to the station in his suit when an alert occurs.

Fundraising is at the heart of their work, with the Friends of Whitby Lifeboat forming a vital source of funding within the local community.

A collection of five pence pieces in jam jars placed in businesses around town recently raised almost £900, while other events are often held, including coffee mornings and quizzes.

Speaking about her motivation for fundraising, Bettie Bayliss, a member of the group, said: “Whitby has got a fairly young crew and I want to make sure they are safe and kitted out well.”

Fellow member, Jon Walker, said he is inspired to raise funds for the station because he knows many of the lads and can see where the money goes.

On July 8 this year, the crew will welcome a new inshore lifeboat to the fleet.