Life with the lifesavers

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We’re speeding across the Solent and the water is glistening in the sun. As the crew from the RNLI Portsmouth lifeboat station come to rest and Norma T bobs up and down, sailors aboard nearby yachts look on appreciatively and wave.

We’re speeding across the Solent and the water is glistening in the sun. As the crew from the RNLI Portsmouth lifeboat station come to rest and Norma T bobs up and down, sailors aboard nearby yachts look on appreciatively and wave.

Training with an RNLI crew at the Portsmouth lifeboat station in Eastney

Training with an RNLI crew at the Portsmouth lifeboat station in Eastney

The RNLI is a service that keeps seafarers safe and has saved many lives in our waters, yet every single crew member is a volunteer.

Those in the 22-strong team based in Eastney take a lot of pride in what they do and get great satisfaction from helping those in difficulty.

But the number of volunteers available to respond quickly enough to emergency call-outs during the daytime is very low as most of the current team work off Portsea Island.

As a result the RNLI today launches a major recruitment drive in the city, offering new members full training to crew the station’s two boats, Norma T and Brian’s Pride.

The present crew is so small that every member of the team is asked to respond to shouts unless they have requested time off or are too far from the station at the time of the call.

Each one of them carries a personal pager at all times. As soon as it goes off, they have a matter of minutes to drop everything and rush down to the station.

The first person in will call the coastguard for basic details on the incident, including location, any reported injuries, the number of people involved, the size of vessel and any other information available.

Incidents they respond to can take place in a patch that stretches from Hayling Island to Gosport and across to the Isle of Wight.

The crew have just 90 seconds to change into their lifesaving uniform – or personal protective equipment – and rush to launch one or both of the boats.

A duty helmsman, who leads the rescue effort, will select a crew to go out on the boats with them depending on the situation.

If there are reported injuries then a trained first-aider will be chosen, or if it is a broken-down vessel then a trainee crew member might be selected to build up experience.

But if reports of a person in the water have been received, then the first four people into the station will rush straight out, regardless of their position.

Often it can be just eight minutes between the crew receiving the page and reaching the incident on the water.

Helmsman Simon Matthews, 30, of Mafeking Road, Southsea, says: ‘As soon as the pager goes off, so does the adrenaline and I start wondering what it is.

‘It’s the excitement of not knowing what we’re going on that got me addicted in the first place, but it’s knowing that we made a difference that makes me feel really good.

‘When someone says thank you and I know they appreciate what we’ve done, then that makes all the hard work worthwhile and I know we’re doing the right job.’

While out on an incident, the RNLI is continuously in contact with Solent Coastguard and a radio operator on board one of the vessels will call them every 15 minutes for updates.

An onboard navigator will assist the helmsman as they drive the vessel to the location, but every crew member is trained to drive the boats should the helmsman need to deal with a more serious issue, such as a casualty.

When the crew reach the location point, or datum, most of the time the incident will still be in the same place. However if it is a person in the water and there are strong currents, then the casualty could have moved.

In this instance, the helmsman will decide which search pattern, out of a possible five, to use to cover a large area around the last known location point.

Helmsman John Shaw, 38, of Garnier Street, Fratton, explains: ‘When we get called out, the training just suddenly kicks in. We all become very focused and concentrate on what we’re doing so that we don’t miss anything.

‘I’m constantly thinking about what the next step might be and looking for different options to make sure we do as thorough a job as possible.

‘Every shout is different. We never get two that are the same, so you have to be quick-thinking and able to work on your feet.’

While the boats are at sea, additional crew members assist with navigation from the station and contact between the coastguard and, if possible, the casualty – if it is a broken-down vessel for example.

They will also record a detailed log of all communications, which can be heard by everyone on board the lifeboat, connected to the radio system via a microphone and earpiece inside their helmets.

The Eastney team also needs volunteers to help out at the station during emergency calls should people want to get involved without going to sea.

New recruits will receive full training, and although maritime experience is an advantage, it is not essential.

They do need to be between the ages of 18 and 40 to go out on the boats, plus have good eyesight, live or work in the Portsmouth area and have their own transport.

Current members want to stress the importance of being available and in the Portsmouth area during the day time.

To find out more, call (023) 9281 4811 or e-mail Portsmouth@rnli.org.uk

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