The picture of a seven-year-old boy standing alone next to a lifeboat spoke volumes to Martin Blaker-Rowe.
The image of the solitary child – about the same age as his son Callum – brought home the grave importance and far-reaching effects of Martin’s work.
And it made the RNLI man realise why the sacrifices and day-to-day challenges faced by the service’s thousands of volunteers and their families are ultimately worth it.
The little lad’s mum, Vanessa Glover, had been rescued by Martin and his colleagues after being swept away by a roaring flood.
And thanks to them, seven-year-old Silas, posing happily by the lifeboat after the event, would spend a merry Christmas with both mum and dad.
‘I always think about that picture of Silas on his own and it really brings it home,’ says Martin, who lives in Fareham. ‘Mrs Glover always says ‘‘you managed to allow us to have Christmas together’’.’
Martin and other volunteers from the Flood Rescue Team – Paul Eastment, Chris Missen, Jason Dunlop and Bernie Mannings – were called out on December 22, 2012.
Martin had been looking forward to a rare festive period without work. But he had to dash to Devon – leaving his seven-year-old son Callum in the care of his brother-in-law – and prepare to be away for Christmas Day.
The volunteers thought nothing of tinsel, traditional feasts and time with their families when they saw Vanessa Glover’s dire situation.
The river at Umberleigh had burst its banks and the rushing flood water had spun the family’s truck as they drove home in the dark.
Silas and his dad Paul scrambled to the roof of the vehicle but Vanessa was carried away by the swift, swollen river and ended up clinging to a tree branch for 50 minutes.
‘I’d never seen anything like it. The water was flowing fast, it was dark and she was screaming. We were seen as being near enough to help and the last resort,’ says Martin.
Vanessa has since become an ambassador for the RNLI.
The mum, who is originally from Waterlooville, nominated the three men who fought through the flood – Martin, Chris at the helm and team leader Paul – for a Pride of Britain Award.
And Martin, wife Helen and Callum have become firm friends with the Glovers. Silas even attended Callum’s seventh birthday party.
Martin, 34, did end up spending that Christmas with his own family. But he missed a trip to see Santa with Callum.
The flood specialist always has a pager with him and has been called away during family days out.
But for him, his family and the service’s other volunteers, the reason is always obvious.
‘If that had been Helen in the river, I’d want to know someone was there to try to save her,’ he says.
Helen and Callum are extremely proud of Martin, who also works full-time for the RNLI as a trainer.
They were the first to find out he had been nominated for the national televised Pride of Britain awards when it was announced on Daybreak.
Martin was out of the country and Helen and Callum were sat in bed. ‘I’d arranged for him to be a bit late to school. When it was announced we both cried,’ she says.
Helen is used to their hectic lifestyle. After all, Martin’s life was devoted to the RNLI when they met.
Martin, who was a sea-going crewman then, says: ‘The first time I met Helen’s mum and dad my pager went off. They were coming round for dinner and I had to say “hello, I’m Martin, I’ve got to go”.’
Helen admits that at first she had sleepless nights when Martin was out in treacherous conditions.
But she says: ‘I know how good he is because I’ve been out on the boat with him. Now I just think he’s mad to be out in that weather when I’m tucked up inside!’
In any case, Helen is often at 35,000 feet. As a cabin manager for BA, she doesn’t have time to worry.
Helen is part-time and the couple somehow work out their hectic lifestyles. The flip side is that there’s plenty to talk about.
Martin has received an RNLI award inscribed on vellum. It’s the same award that was presented to historic heroine Grace Darling, who Callum was studying at school.
So Martin was able to visit the school and talk to the pupils, making Callum very proud although he cheekily says his dad has received a ‘stupidity award’.
Martin recently went to Bangladesh, offering training to rescue workers. He was due home but the team were then called to the Philippines by charity Save the Children in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
‘We were advising them on the use of small boats to get to small islands,’ says Martin, who was based in Manila.
He saw little of the devastation and says he played a small part in the rescue effort but is pleased to have been called when needed.
But Callum was expecting his dad home and became a little upset.
It was worth the wait when father and son were finally reunited at Heathrow and the excited little boy leaped into his dad’s arms and received plenty of hugs.
Martin, who again had a busy December, is the one that has received awards and medals. But he believes in recognitition for the likes of Callum, Helen and her family who step in at the last minute to provide child care.
‘The service is fantastic but without the support of our families we wouldn’t be able to do what we do’ he says.
The RNLI provides, on call, a 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue service and a seasonal lifeguard facility.
This lifesaving service is provided, wherever possible, by volunteers.
The RNLI Flood Rescue Team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to deploy to emergencies in the UK and abroad.
The team comprises lifeboat crews from all around the RNLI who have been specially trained for the risks involved when working in or around fast-moving flood water.
There are six divisional teams around the UK and a total of 250 members. Fifty of these form the International Flood Rescue Team, who can deploy anywhere in the world within 24 hours.
The search and rescue service at sea operates from 236 stations. These include Bembridge, Calshot, Cowes, Hayling Island, Portsmouth and Selsey.
For information on supporting the service and volunteering, visit rnli.org or call 0300 300 9990.