Yachting World’s Matthew Sheahan goes out with the crew of the Falmouth RNLI lifeboat and experiences a ‘man overboard’

Shot for Nigel Millard’s book the Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts page

I joined the crew of the Falmouth RNLI lifeboat on exercise. This would allow me to experience the workings of both the crew and the fascinating go-anywhere vessels that are the RNLI’s hallmark.

On the day of the exercise, the Met Office’s shipping forecast website showed every sea area bar one coloured in red as a deep and widespread low pressure system swept across the country. The breeze in our area was due to build to 50 knots. Perfect conditions for joining an RNLI lifeboat crew, I thought. Yet I felt slightly anxious about how I would cope inside a pitching, rolling Severn class lifeboat. Despite having never been seasick, a session on the stationary simulator in Poole the year before had left me feeling pretty queasy at one point. It was difficult to see how the real thing would be any better.

Coxswain Mark Pollard, 39, was the first to arrive at the Falmouth lifeboat station on his Suzuki GSX-R1000 motorbike and, when I mentioned the weather, fishing for a clue as to what the exercise might involve, he replied: “I’m not sure what we’ll do today. I prefer to tailor the day’s tasks to the conditions as we find them and to the crew that we have.” (Did you know RNLI crew have just 12 minutes to get themselves to the lifeboat station? Read Matt’s account)

No mention of the forecast. It was four days before the penny dropped. No one plans to have an accident, making it tricky to plan a set response. While the RNLI lifeboat crews can practise search and rescue techniques, much of their skill is in being able to deal with situations as they arise. The weather is just another issue, not the deciding factor as to whether or not to head out, as it might be for the rest of us.

The first I knew of our plan was on being ushered into the changing rooms to put on my foulweather gear and being briefed by Dave Nicoll (local Falmouth man, 52, navigator and helmsman) on the use of my RNLI lifejacket. From there it was off to the boat for a briefing on where I could go on deck. Then we were off.

I have spent many hours leaping from crest to crest in high-powered RIBs, but I have never experienced anything like the raw power of 2,500bhp pushing a 42 tonne 56ft boat through 2m waves in a 35-50 knot headwind. Most impressive of all was her motion and the way that each potentially spine-jarring landing was eased thanks to her deep V configuration and the gas strut suspension under each of the crew’s seats. Only once did Nicoll throttle back as we blasted upwind. “Chicken,” one of the crew joked under her breath as we slam-dunked into the wave’s trough.

“Most of the time I don’t really want to completely launch her off the tops of waves,” Nicoll said afterwards. “She’ll take it, but we can’t. She’s good for 25 knots if the rescue is life-threatening and can still make 20 knots in 5-6m seas.”

Meanwhile, navigator Thomas Telford was calling the course changes as we worked our way westwards to the entrance of the Helford River as he followed his rapidly planned track on the chart while monitoring the plotter. Then all the screens bar the GPS went blank. With the boat still thumping upwind at 20 knots, Telford was now under pressure to make the right calls at short notice with little information.

What he didn’t realise was that coxswain Pollard had discreetly asked mechanic and second coxswain John Blakestone to switch off the power to the chartplotter as a test for Telford. He got us there, but a few tactful words from the coxswain highlighted some lessons to be learned about running plots.

As we arrived at our waypoint in the Helford river the call went out to deploy the ‘Y’ boat, a RIB stowed on the upper deck. Once it was afloat, the crew practised using direction-finding equipment that picks up a heading from a VHF transmission before recovering the ‘Y’ boat and heading back into the waves.

As we blasted downwind, punching through the waves once again, the breeze had increased, regularly gusting well into the 50s. Suddenly there was a call: “Man overboard!”

By the time we had turned around, the ‘Dead Fred’ dummy was 100m astern and the crew swung into action.

Coxswain Pollard was at the outside upper helming position as we worked upwind to pick up the casualty. Despite losing sight of the Dead Fred as we got closer, his first attempt looked to be spot on until a gust well over 50 knots blew the bow to port and towards the casualty. He reversed hard and set up for another attempt.

This time the approach was equally accurate, but as the lifeboat pitched over a wave, the two crewmembers standing in the side deck recovery pit were unable to hold onto the dummy as the wave wrenched it out of their grip. A third attempt was successful, as were the two further MOB exercises.

Compared with some of the live shouts, these were simple tasks that the crew has doubtless carried out many times before during fortnightly exercises, but there were still topics to be discussed, lessons to be learned, issues to be considered.

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