All aboard with RNLI lifesavers

A DARK, wet and windy winter’s evening may be the best or worst time to experience training with Weymouth RNLI, depending on your relationship with the sea. If for any reason something were to go wrong however, one could at least say Weymouth RNLI’s crew are the best people to be with in such conditions. 

One of the busiest lifeboat stations on the coast, a crew of around 30 people covers 1,330 square nautical miles. Training sessions such as tonight are used as an opportunity to refresh crew members’ knowledge and skills. Sitting in the station’s harbour side office, Nick Massey, deputy second coxswain, seeks to quell any concerns I may have. 

“We’ll assign someone to keep an eye on you. They’ll make sure you won’t get hurt. On a bad night like this, that’s the last thing you want. It wouldn’t look very good,” he jokes. 

Tonight’s exercises are largely influenced by what has taken place at previous sessions. Deciding which exercises to practice, Nick says, “You don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. People get bored. The hardest thing is thinking of something new to do.” 

The station has two boats: a Severn class lifeboat named Ernest and Mabel, and an Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboat named Phyl Clare III. Ernest and Mabel goes out on average once a week, normally a Tuesday, taking seven crew members at a time. It’s the boat we’ll be going on tonight. 

Nick says: “We want to do as much training and make things as realistic as possible but we also don’t want to put the crew at an unnecessary risk to danger for the sake of it. Tonight, we could go off out Portland Bill. It wouldn’t be very nice. It would be good practice in a way but personally I wouldn’t do that. 

“We could be called at any time so we’ve got to be prepared for any weather. Sometimes we have planned things that we’re going to do on particular days, and if the weather’s bad we live with it.” Weymouth RNLI will go to sea 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, with 10 people available every minute of every day. 

Ken Francis, volunteer press officer, says: “Nobody wants to go out but they’ll be ready to do it. We can teach anybody to do anything. I can teach you to tie a knot. I can teach you to drive a boat. “I can’t teach you to get out of bed at three o’clock in the morning if it’s pouring down with rain and blowing a gale. 

“You’ve got to come with that commitment and the RNLI will train you to do anything you want.” The station only has two full-time paid positions: a coxswain and a mechanic. The rest are volunteers. Ken says: “We’re after some extra volunteers for the fundraisers – mostly just around lifeboat week, rattling buckets or just helping out generally. “Boats wouldn’t go to sea without the fundraisers raising the money. It’s a real team effort.” 

Joining us on tonight’s exercise are Malcolm Wright, the station’s new operations manager, and Mark Fagg, Wyke Regis Coast-guard station officer. Malcolm says: “This service is dependent upon the goodwill of all the volunteers, particularly over the Christmas period. “It’s getting the right people for the right reasons.” 

For the next couple of hours, I become a fly on the wall – albeit a wet and windswept one. The all-weather boat takes us just off Portland. I watch on as crew members practice their ability to conduct a slow-speed transfer. This would normally be used if they were transferring a casualty from the inshore lifeboat to the Severn class lifeboat. 

This seamlessly rolls into a first aid exercise where Malcolm and Mark are treated as casualties. Malcolm feigns a suspected broken leg whilst Mark acts out the symptoms associated with a head wound. Crew members tend to both ‘victims’ professionally and diligently, carrying out checks and ensuring they don’t wander around the boat. 

Each time a crew member goes outside, they inform another of their whereabouts. Being an exercise practiced many times before, it becomes a matter of routine. After final checks are made, the exercise comes to a close near Portland Marina and plans are made to head back to Weymouth Harbour. 

Discussing the crew, Nick said: “There’s a great crew – 90 per cent of the time we all get on and there’s good camaraderie bet-ween the crew. The training is unparalleled really. “I’d say 50 per cent of the crew work around the water in some way – some fishermen, divers, whatever. They think they’re putting something back for the time they spend on it.” 

Just as the evening looks to pass by without any unscheduled drama, a report comes through of a 43ft yacht in difficulties off Weymouth Harbour. The boat has suffered engine problems and needs towing into Weymouth Harbour. Six people are on board, five of whom are students. The crew responds to the call from the Coastguard and soon finds the yacht bobbling along just outside the harbour entrance. 

Ropes are thrown across to allow an alongside tow to take place. Within what seems a matter of minutes the boat is safely placed on a berth outside the Harbourmaster. It is soon discovered those on board the boat are from UKSA, a charitable organisation training people to join the sailing industry in a professional status. 

Whilst students from the yacht pose for photographs with their rescuers, sailor Mervyn Down, responsible for those on board, tells me what went wrong. He says: “We’ve just made passage from Salcombe and we’ve got a brand new engine on board. We started her up a few times to charge the batteries en route and by the time we needed the engine for propulsion when we got to the entrance, she wouldn’t start. 

“We just called up Weymouth Coastguard in the hope they might have a tug to pull us in with. There’s no way we could have sailed that boat. It means we’re going to get a good night’s sleep tonight, rather than bouncing around out there in the rough weather trying to anchor up.” As we make our way back to the station, 

Nick says: “We get a lot of that, especially in the summer. There are a lot of yachts around and that’s quite a common job for us – usually about 20 miles out, not usually quite that close.” Nick, a volunteer crew member for 11 years, said he spent a lot of time on the water. 

When asked why he signed up, he says: “I enjoy it. It’s a good service to the community, which it is. “It’s a funny, old question, isn’t it? Why would you do it? Sometimes when you get up at three o’clock in the morning and it’s blowing a gale and you’re thinking it’s going to be horrible out there, you do question yourself but you haven’t just booked up for the sunny days and sunglasses.” 

If you would like to volunteer as a fundraiser for Weymouth RNLI, please get in touch by calling 01305 785817.  

by Oscar Tollast

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