The Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service can be summoned at any time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Reporter Ben Fishwick spent a morning at its base and on board a lifeboat to see how it runs
Hurtling along the Solent, a lifeboat crew keeps a watchful eye on the busy stretch of water.
The Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service crew are on the look-out for anything that looks astray.
As an independent asset under HM Coastguard, it is their job to tackle any incident they are given.
That could be anything from dealing with a yacht run aground, a fire on a boat – or even a medical emergency.
Joining them afloat for a morning to see how they operate from its purpose-built boathouse in Lifeboat Lane, Stokes Bay, it is my job not to be seasick while aboard their lifeboat travelling at about 30 knots in the Solent.
Coxswain Mike Allen and his crew Paul Goulder and Andy Barber took me along for a patrol during Cowes Week – a huge regatta attracting around 1,000 boats.
Luckily the dozens of boats around us were fine the morning I was on board.
But by the end of the year the Gafirs will have been sent out to 140 emergency calls.
The volunteer crews and coxswains are experienced and highly-trained – anyone in trouble on a boat could only be reassured when their distinctive orange lifeboat arrives, complete with crew decked out with yellow helmets and matching drysuits.
Perhaps after having turned a shade of green I am not the ideal crew member – but Gafirs does need more people. The crew rely on a team of look-outs, shore crew, maintenance crew and fundraisers to keep them afloat.
And having reached 54 call-outs so far this year, Mike knows they have a lot more to come.
‘A lot of incidents are quite minor, but we do occasionally get quite serious ones,’ explains Mike, who is also vice-chairman for operations at Gafirs.
‘Being crew takes the most commitment, even for someone coming from a nautical background.
‘We have our own way of doing things.’
And that is important when on board one of the two lifeboats, the newest of which can travel more than 35 knots.
The combination of the occasional spray of sea water, the roar of the engine and the rip of the wind makes it so loud it can be hard to hear.
‘It doesn’t matter which coxswain or which crew it is, everybody is doing the same thing the same way,’ Mike adds.
‘The majority of times, things get done without any discussion because you know what’s got to be done.
‘Everyone knows exactly how something needs to be set up or rigged up.’
It is not a simple process to become a member of lifeboat crew – but one that reveals the layers of support behind getting a boat on the water.
Mike adds: ‘If someone walks through the door now and says they want to become a lifeboat crew member, we don’t just say “right here you go, here’s a drysuit”.
‘We like to start people off on shore-side. It’s important they know how the boats are launched, so they are safe and confident shore-side.
‘Once we’re happy they’re aware of what’s going on around them, they undertake launch and recovery, we then start a process of float and shore-side training.’
Crew members are taught first aid and how to launch and operate the two lifeboats. And the array of kit on the newest lifeboat is dazzling.
Communications systems allow the coxswain and crew to stay in touch with the boathouse and the coastguard.
High-tech navigation systems include GPS and radar – helping crew track down stricken vessels quickly.
When fully-trained, crews will take it in turns to be on call, while the five coxswains also alternate to be ready to pilot the boat.
Most members live within 10 minutes of the boathouse, meaning a crew is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
It takes just 10 minutes to travel from the base to Gafirs’ farthest point of operation on the water.
And while not part of the HM Coastguard declared facility, cadets in canoes and kayaks also help patrol the shore.
A sense of camaraderie among Gafirs is key, with each person supporting others.
Paul, 54, of Avery Lane, Forton, signed up to become crew after seeing an advert.
‘I just walked past one day, there was an advert in the paper and I made enquiries.’
From there Paul quickly went through the training scheme, which includes RYA accreditation, first acting as shore crew helping launch the lifeboat into the water.
Shortly afterward he was called to a major incident, responding to a call after a man collapsed on a boat.
He said: ‘I’ve dealt with one fatality, that was early on, my second job.
‘The chances are he was probably dead before we got there.
‘You all come back and have a debrief around the table and make sure everybody is all right.
‘We’ve got to work as a crew, there’s some camaraderie between you.
‘That’s the way you deal with something.’
While the lifeboat is at the sharp end, the crews in the boathouse play a vital role.
Guy Sitwell keeps an eye out as bridge watch keeper.
Guy, 73, of Ashburton Road, keeps in touch with the lifeboat on the water, arranging for crew changes, resupplies and relays messages from the coastguard.
He said: ‘At the same time, we’re looking after the station and looking after any incidents that may occur here with members of the public on the beach.’
This is not a small operation. It costs more than £35,000 a year to run, and Gafirs is constantly fundraising. To volunteer, see gafirs.org.uk
Helping to avert disaster
A team won high praise when they helped avert disaster in the middle of D-Day commemorations.
RHIB Grapefruit was stranded after its engines cut out on and it started to drift toward HMS Bulwark, which was leaving Portsmouth Harbour.
Now coxswain Mike Allen and his crew Steve Clarke and Chris Newbrook have been highly-commended for saving the day on June 5.
They sped out in the Gosport and Fareham Inshore Rescue Service lifeboat and towed the stricken boat back to safety – and out of the path of the 19,000-tonne navy flagship.
The district manager for HM Coastguard praised their actions in a letter believed to be the first of its kind received at Gafirs.
‘Your prompt response, exemplary seamanship skills, safe operation and leadership of your crew ensured that you were able to reach the vessel with sufficient time to spare to execute a snatch tow and removed Grapefruit from a rapidly deteriorating close quarters situation that was verging on perilous for the RHIB crew,’ it said.
‘Your actions not only prevented a collision that may have caused injury or worse to those on board the RHIB, but it also averted a situation that might have significantly compromised the Royal Navy.
‘Once again I find myself re-assured that the declared facility and capability made available by Gafirs to Solent Coastguard is of the highest possible order.’
Out on the water
BEING on board a lifeboat is great fun – even if the most I could do was to just about steer in a straight line while trying my hardest not to feel ill.
While my time on board was free of incidents, the crews and coxswains clearly take their jobs seriously – they are emergency responders and lives can be at risk.
It takes them just moments to get kitted out – it took me minutes and several attempts – jumping into their drysuits, putting on the distinctive yellow helmets and their life jackets.
Minutes later the Gafirs tractor launches the boat and it is free to speed off to wherever needed.
People in trouble who see them coming can breathe easy. They might be volunteers but they are not amateurs.