Written by Neil Maxwell
One of the frustrations of being part of the Portsmouth RNLI Lifeboat crew is that not many people know where the Lifeboat station is and we’re often mistaken for the independent, part time, organisation based by the Pyramids. Added to which, as there are no houses in the immediate vicinity of the station, when we are called out in the middle of the night it often goes unnoticed, unless you follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
There is something quite surreal about being dragged out of your bed in the early hours of the morning, driving through the empty streets, pulling on a dry suit, and rapidly having to engage your brain into considering the many elements we have to contend with, from the weather, tide, crew mix – yet a few minutes before, you were sound asleep.
For those that regularly work night shifts, I’m sure that this is normal. However, for unpaid volunteers expected at work the next day, its no small sacrifice. I’ll give you a snap shot of a service earlier this year Friday, March 17th 02:34 am.
The sound of the pager shatters the night, and across the city the crew grab their clothes and assemble at the boathouse. The launch request on the pager stated both boats, which indicates it’s urgent. The Duty Helm/Coxswain calls the coastguard and is tasked to search the shoreline of west coast Hayling Island for a missing suicidal person. The Duty Helm selects crews for both boats, and come up with a search plan, and launch into the inky blackness.
Once at sea, the searchlights and the image intensifier are switched on, and both boats begin their search. The D Class ILB goes along the west coast, its shallower draft allowing it closer access to the shore, whilst the Atlantic proceeds out to the harbour and searches along Hayling seafront. The Coastguard have several shore units working with the police who request the Coastguard helicopter, who are soon overhead.
The D Class works its way along in extremely shallow water, the crew still using searchlights, whilst on the Atlantic, a stiff breeze has whipped up the seas and the crew are having to watch out for large waves on the beam as they work their way along the coast.
After an hour of searching, a radio message from the Coastguard confirms that the helicopter has directed the Police to the missing person who are now ensuring they get the help they need. Both boats return to the boat house at 03:50, the boats are refuelled and cleaned. At 04:30am the crew head home.
In my time with the crew we have dealt with everything: horses, dogs, heart attacks, strokes, head injuries, spinal injuries, sinking boats, boats on fire, scattered ashes for those who wish to be committed to the sea, and performed the sad task of body recovery. All this from a charity that receives zero government funding, crewed by volunteers at 238 lifeboat stations around the coast, 365 days a year.
The RNLI is an amazing charity crewed by ‘ordinary people doing extraordinary things’ but we couldn’t do it without your help and we would like to thank all of you that support us monthly and the donations you kindly put in our collecting buckets on the seafront and at Gunwharf’s recent hugely successful Seafood Festival.