What does this year hold for the busiest lifeboat station in the North West?
It’s already got off to a saddening start – the crew called out after 41-year-old Paul Morris was swept to his death early on New Year’s Day.
But last year launches doubled in Blackpool in spite of the wettest summer on record driving RNLI responses down across the land.
Blackpool’s lifeboat craft turned out 92 times – and pulled 23 people from the sea. The only northern station to top that tally was Sunderland – with 100 launches and 100 rescues.
No lifeboat station volunteer, in any capacity, wants to top the launch league – it means more people are taking risks.
Lifeboat operations manager Rowland Darbyshire says one factor for the rising numbers was easier access to the beach, once seafront regeneration hoardings were removed.
Not all those call outs come as a result of accident, blunders, breakdowns, misguided bravery, being blown off course, ill equipped, caught unawares by weather, having too much to drink or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In some cases people have simply walked into the sea rather than been snatched by it.
“It’s a sad fact of life that some people are depressed and that’s been a feature in some rescues or call outs,” Rowland admits.
“It’s probably a sign of the times, the bad financial climate, people down in the dumps.”
Rowland is a solicitor. His love of sailing and knowledge of the sea led him to join the RNLI 30 years ago. He received a long service medal from Prince Michael of Kent in 2010.
He stands down this year. “The cut off age is 70,” he admits.
It’s not all been plain sailing for Rowland but “the attitude has changed from a sort of Royal Navy approach – do what you are told – to proper consultation with headquarters.
“We are in the unusual position of having three boats, two smaller D class boats good for close inshore work, around the pier stanchions, grabbing someone, putting them back on the beach, or working together, and the bigger boat can cover up to five miles offshore in tougher conditions.
“It’s the best of both worlds. Much of our work is close inshore – our Wimbledon centre court is Central Beach.”
Blackpool’s new boat – the Atlantic 85, bigger and better equipped than the current Atlantic 75 – arrives in April. “The fact that one of our crew Colin Lowe was chosen to go down and assist in the trials of the new boat and then became an instructor for the RNLI in Poole is one of our success stories.”
Rowland has seen some changes in the last 30 years including the opening in the late 90s of the showcase station with shop, exhibition centre and viewing gallery. “We like to think our station prompted the regeneration of the seafront. We think it’s the best in Britain.”
There are drawbacks. “We now launch directly into the sea rather than walk the boat in gradually. At high water it can be tricky. It also makes recovery more difficult.”
Blackpool’s crews are volunteers to a man – Blackpool, unlike Lytham and Fleetwood, has no female crew members. “We have had a professional wrestler, zoo keeper, firemen, policemen, builders, council workers – but no women on the crew and there’s no reason why not, other than they haven’t applied.
“We welcome anyone who shows commitment and is able to fit in what is essentially a small family.”
Crews represent the adrenalin rush of the rescue service but behind the scenes other volunteers keep the lifeline service afloat – fundraisers, launch support staff, repairs, maintenance, more. Esther Lowe, volunteer website manager and press officer, says it’s a family affair. “My husband is on the crew and I volunteer because they do such an incredible job but tend to be very self deprecating.”
There’s a father and son team too. Keith Horrocks is station support manager, mechanic and also works for the RNLI across the land encouraging closer community ties. Son Jonathan is on the crew.
Keith concludes: “I started in 1969 as a volunteer. I was 14 and helped with launching. Today the starting age is 17 with parental approval. My uncle Jim had pleasure boats on the beach and was the lifeboat coxswain. I feel like I’ve come full circle really.”