Yachting World’s Matthew Sheahan meets the dedicated crew of the Falmouth lifeboat station

How long would it take you to roll out of bed, dress and get out of the front door if you had to leave home in a hurry at night? Ten minutes? That’s far too long. If you’re part of an RNLI lifeboat crew, you’ve got just two – and that includes waking up as the pager goes off.

Add six minutes to get to the station and another two to don your foulweather gear and lifejacket and you’re up to ten. Given the 12-minute average launch time for the RNLI’s Falmouth-based Severn Class lifeboat, that leaves just two minutes to establish what the emergency is about, assess the conditions, select the crew from those who turned up, get down to the lifeboat, slip her lines and get under way.

And that’s a leisurely deployment. If you’re in the inshore lifeboat (ILB), the RIB that is deployed for around two-thirds of the ‘shouts’, you’ll need to shave four or five minutes off your time. Even then, getting to the station is the easy bit.

“You can be fast asleep at home in the middle of the night and 15 minutes later be attending to an accidental amputation at sea,” navigator and helmsman Dave Nicoll says. “Getting from home to the lifeboat station is one thing, but sometimes we have to make crucial decisions minutes after waking up.”

As the UK took repeated batterings from an exceptional run of winter weather, I joined the Falmouth crew to find out what makes an RNLI lifeboat station and its crew tick, and later I went out with the lifeboat on exercise to practice man overboard drill.

My lodgings were opposite the maritime museum, a stone’s throw from the station itself and far closer than any of the crew. Yet from outside the hotel’s front door and fully dressed, it took me four minutes walking at a brisk pace. Suddenly the scale of the problem struck home. How on earth do the crew manage to deploy their services at such short notice?

Their all-weather lifeboat (ALB), the Richard Cox Scott, may sit at a pontoon ready to go, but unlike their rescue colleagues in the fire, ambulance or air sea rescue services, the RNLI crew are not on call at the station. Lifeboat crews drop everything to go out on a shout. It makes no odds if they are at work, at home, out for dinner or fast asleep: when the pager goes off they are on their way before it has stopped buzzing.

Yet it wasn’t until I had met the crew that I fully appreciated what this really meant.

Technically, when there’s a shout, no one has to turn up. All crew members bar one paid mechanic and a retained coxswain are volunteers. Second, there is no duty roster, at least not at Falmouth. They’ve tried rosters and agreed that it doesn’t work because it becomes a full-time job to manage who’s on and who’s off. So, once you’re in the crew, you’re on call.

But if you’re ill, tired, away or have over-indulged, you don’t have to turn up. Indeed, in these cases the rest of the crew don’t want you there.

“Only turn up if you’re ready to go out, is my rule,” says Falmouth coxswain Mark Pollard. “I don’t mind if some don’t want to go on a particular shout. In certain conditions it would be wrong for some of our less experienced crew anyway. But arriving at the station and then explaining why you can’t go out is no help in the heat of the moment.”

So, in theory you can pick and choose your shouts. Yet the reality is different. It takes seven to crew the ALB and three to crew the ILB, plus at least one winchman to get the boat down the slipway. If both boats are deployed, it requires around half the total crew of 24. They have never been short.

Of all the crewmembers, senior members such as coxswains and navigators in particular need to stay closest to the station. As a result their lives revolve around it. A trip to the shops 11 miles away in Truro, an impromptu morning out with the kids or an invitation to dinner in Helford, all these normal activities are out of the question until alternative cover has been arranged.

Their world lies within a six-minute radius of the station, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Venturing further afield means a phone call first. Little wonder that during the course of the four days I spent with the crew, all went to great lengths to emphasise the big sacrifices that families make to cater for their loved ones’ sense of duty.

Mark Pollard, 39, joined the RNLI at the age of 17. Navigator and helmsman Dave Nicoll, 52, joined aged 18. Born and raised in Falmouth, both have families and have been on call most of their lives. Such commitment. That the RNLI continues to attract new blood is all the more surprising given our increasingly busy world, with all its distractions and demands.

“The last four to five years have seen a new, younger generation join the crew,” Pollard explains. “We’re lucky here, as most have stuck with the station. If they get through the first two years, they will usually stay.”

Thomas Telford, 33, is one of the newest in the crew, having joined 18 months ago. He is a co-director of an internet marketing company based in Falmouth that employs eight people and he openly admits to still being struck by the diverse nature of his new lifestyle: “I still find it staggering that I can be at my desk in the office – warm, dry and working online – and 30 minutes later I could be covered in blood or wrestling with a boat that is dragging its anchor in a howling gale. Two hours after that I can be back at my desk.

“For all anyone else knows, I have just been out at lunch. Sometimes it leaves you feeling rather odd and displaced.”

Until this trip I thought I understood the fundamentals of the RNLI and its huge corps of dedicated volunteers, but in just 24 hours I was blown away at the level of commitment.

After four days I was left in awe.




This is an extract from a feature on rescue crews in the June 2014 issue of Yachting World