SOS appeal for RNLI

The Gazette's Jacqui Morely on the lifeboat
The Gazette's Jacqui Morely on the lifeboat
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Fleetwood lifeboat station is the busiest in the North West with the most rescue launches. Jacqui Morley joined a late-night training exercise to find out more

It’s cold and lonely at sea, even with the camaraderie of Fleetwood’s lifeboat crew Warming the cockles of the heart.

If it feels like that on board a lifeboat, how must it feel out there for real, a family of seven stranded on a sandbank, bait digger cut off from the tide, swimmer or surfer tugged by treacherous currents, a leisure craft swept out to choppy open waters, a small boat caught fast, lines fouled up, engine done for, or a ferry on which the cargo has shifted?

That’s when the sound of the maroon going off, marking the lifeboat launch, brings fresh reserves of strength to those fearing themselves lost at sea.

Help is on its way. And that’s all in a year’s work for this, the busiest Royal National Lifeboat Institution station on the North West coast, 152 years old this year.

Yet how can anyone volunteer for this? The weight of the lifesaving kit into which I struggled an hour earlier, falls away the moment I take the wheel of The William Street lifeboat, and set a course through the menacing sandbank marker buoys, slumbering seabirds, and wraith of Wyre Light, an ingenious example of early Victorian engineering. Now sadly neglected and skeletal in the searchlight, for the permanent mooring pen.

Steady as she goes. The vertiginous rocking soon eases the faster the pace, as the mostly aluminium lifeboat, with self-righting capability, and surprisingly low centre of gravity, cuts through the waves at up to 18 knots. And that’s when the elation lifts the spirits.

There’s no buzz like it, says my minder, crewman Andrew Wilson, who’s helped kit me out for the two-hour training exercise which is a weekly regular. “The adrenaline just carries you through – and there’s nothing like being able to help someone, bring them home.”

Home and dry. Crews here were involved in 49 rescue launches last year, one more than Morecambe lifeboat station, seven more than Blackpool, involving the small nimble D class, Mary Elizabeth Barnes, inshore craft, and the mighty WS, a good old girl, in spite of “her” name. She is newly refitted and ready for another 10 years if all goes well, tempting as the new Tamar lifeboats, which can go 25 knots top whack must be.

There’s huge affection in local volunteer ranks for both craft, says coxswain Paul Ashworth. The only paid worker, mechanic Steve Carroll, knows them both like the back of his hand. “They’re incredible,” he admits. Capsized canoeists, anglers lost in fog, broken down jetskis, fouled props, yachts that have slipped moorings, drifting motor boats, rescued dogs, searches for missing people, the volunteer crews have seen it all, and more.

It makes the lull in the action at the busiest lifeboat station all the more welcome. The cause is an SOS of sorts, from the Seasiders up the coast, at Blackpool, where the tide has finally turned in Manchester United’s 3-2 favour. The brave Blackpool football squad holding out 2-0 until the last 18 minutes of the game. Two of the lifeboatmen, misguided Manchester United supporters, hang on every update from an iPhone, to catch up with the latest from Bloomfield Road while all at sea in Cod Army country. To add insult to injury, valiant Fleetwood Town have just fallen at Kettering Town, 2-1.

But this lifeboat station tops its own regional league, the busiest in the North West according to RNLI statistics out this week. In 2008, it was the busiest in the North, now claimed by Sunderland with 86 rescues. There’s been a dip, possibly down to recession taking its toll of coastal visitors or leisure craft use. The port’s mighty trawler fleet is long depleted, now ferry giant Stena has moved out and taken some of Fleetwood’s heart with it. Trying times. Even Liverpool Coastguard Station could be shut or downgraded under Government proposals.

Paradoxically, the RNLI’s greatest strength is its reliance, as an independent charity, on public donations. Tomorrow marks SOS Day, the RNLI’s big annual fundraiser. Get along to the shop tomorrow or at the weekend to make every penny count. Sign up for the mid-summer sponsored walk to Wyre Light, or drop in at the Co-op travel show on Sunday at the De Vere Hotel to see the stand there. Do your bit.

Fleetwood is a sea-faring town, even one fallen on harder times, and this station matters. Volunteers come from the nautical college, offshore rigs, and Stena ranks. Locals line the front when the maroon goes off, says old hand, lifeboat operations manager Captain David Eccles, a Stena captain, who sounds the alert as the lifeboat launches, so crews can reach the station ahead of the crowds.

But they cherish those crowds. Most of the volunteers, women as well as men, come from all walks of life, united by the call to help others, at any time, and are equipped by public goodwill rather than a penny of state aid. And right now, with the economy adrift, that’s how they prefer it. It makes the RNLI masters of their own destiny, and you can’t put a price on that.

l www.fleetwood-lifeboat.org; www.mli.org.uk/sos