I’ve been an RNLI member for a long time – as a yachtsman, I knew that I could always rely on the organisation if disaster struck, and my crew or myself were in danger at sea, but I’d never considered joining the crew of the local lifeboat – for almost half my working life, I was the sole vet in the practice and was on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it wasn’t really an option. By the time the practice expanded, and I began to get some time off, I thought I was too old. I knew that 55 was the cut off, and I’d just passed that landmark.
But out of the blue, not long after I’d started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, the local lifeboat operations manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in being a Deputy Launch Authority for Girvan lifeboat, or DLA for short.
The job is not onerous – the on-duty DLA responds to a request from the coastguard for the launch of the lifeboat and passes the information on to the boat’s coxswain, and gives permission to launch the lifeboat on service.
I accepted, and started popping down to the station during Monday night practices, watching the crew head out on our ALB (All Weather Lifeboat) of the Mersey class, and learning all about the station and the lifeboat from the other DLA, Ian McClymont, an ex crew-member.
When asked if I’d like a trip out on the boat, I jumped at it, and was suitably kitted out on one of the training nights. When they told me the maximum age for being on the lifeboat had been raised from 55 to 65, I didn’t look back.
Within a couple of weeks, I had converted from DLA to rookie crew member. Some of my experience on yachts was helpful – the navigation side of the training is very similar. Just getting used to navigating at 15 knots rather than the sedate 5 knots that I was more familiar was the only issue, and all the ropework was the same. And the support from everyone at the station was incredible.
It was a steep learning curve though, especially when the senior crew suggested that I should go on a navigator’s plan once I’d worked my way through my crew plan. In the meantime, I’d been on my first shout and the sense of satisfaction of being part of a team that had rescued someone at sea was intoxicating.
I attended a couple of courses at the RNLI training College in Poole, an amazing experience – the Crew Emergency Procedures course involved several scenarios where we were dumped in the pool, with waves, rain and darkness to make it more realistic, having to get into life rafts or right our inflatable boat while the ‘sea’ raged around us.
The long-range radio course gave me a commercially endorsed radio operator’s licence, should I ever consider a second career at sea, but it was vital for the effective communication that keeps lifeboat crews safe, and is critical in coordinating every rescue, often with two, three or more agencies involved. No sooner had I passed out as a navigator, the senior members of the crew persuaded me to start training as a coxswain, and put me nominally in charge during a routine exercise. By this time, we had a new boat, the Gertrude and Elizabeth Allan, a Shannon Class, which has a top speed closer to 25 knots, using water jets rather than propellers, and cutting-edge electronics that control everything on the boat, from the navigation and radar systems, to fire-control, bilge pumps and the engines. Each crew member has a job to do, but each seat can take function of any of the main screens, so the radar operator may also control the charts, if the navigator is busy doing something else, like caring for a casualty.
It has two computer servers on board, either of which can run the boat if one fails, and each crew member’s workstation is a computer in its own right, all connected by a ‘bus’ system which means that all the computers talk to each other. A route set by the navigator not only shows up on the helm screen, but is also superimposed on the radar screen, and ‘targets’ selected by the radar operator show up on the chart screen at the navigator’s seat.
The coxswain can rotate around everyone’s screens on his own workstation, making sure the crew are doing their jobs while also coordinating the rescue, and making decisions of a life-or-death nature, for the crew and the casualty. Getting to grips with this, as well as learning how to handle the boat for berthing, and for coming alongside other vessels, was a time-consuming but extremely rewarding task, though splitting my time between writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, working through my coxswain training, and carrying out my duties as a full time vet in my practice was tough, and a few compromises had to be made – I didn’t put my own boat in the water, and sailed only once or twice a year with friends during the five years I was writing the books. And furniture making, which I’d always done, also took a back seat during this time.
But it was worth it, and two years ago, I passed out as an RNLI Shannon coxswain. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I was only sorry my dad wasn’t there to see it – he was a lifelong supporter of the RNLI. It also saddened me incredibly that Ian McClymont, so helpful to me at the station, and also a very enthusiastic beta reader of The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, passed away last year. He’d become a great friend.
I’ve now been the coxswain on over half a dozen shouts, and for a raft of training exercises. Despite the cold sweat and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that always accompanies the pager alert when I’m on-call coxswain, I genuinely enjoy every time I’m in charge of the boat. I know it’s an incredible responsibility, and honour, to be handed the keys for a two-million pound vessel that has to go out in the most horrific conditions, if needed, and that the the lives of the crew and those we are out there to rescue depend on the decisions I make, and I don’t treat it lightly. If I ever feel that I’m not up to the job, I’ll walk away, as I won’t put anyone at risk just because I don’t want to give it up.
I’m hoping, though, that I have a few years left at sea with the RNLI before I have to hang up my ‘yellows’ for the last time, and become a DLA again, perhaps, or help with the fundraising team, to help keep the RNLI’s lifeboats afloat.
On that final note, it would be great if you could find a way of contributing – The RNLI is the only emergency service that relies entirely on charitable donations, and its volunteers depend on the public’s generosity to keep them safe at sea. Check out Girvan lifeboat’s Facebook page for the countless ways you can help.