Heroes of the high seas
PUBLISHED: 12:36 15 July 2014
Julian Claxton takes to the waves on a training exercise with the RNLI crew of the Spirit of Lowestoft. His words and pictures tell the story of this brave band of volunteers
Photo bags packed and heading through Lowestoft to the South Pier – home to the RNLI lifeboat – I am slightly concerned by the gusts of wind and howling rain. Is it too rough to go out with the crew?
“We’re ready, let’s get you kitted up,” shouts John, the coxswain mechanic for the Spirit of Lowestoft. My heart skips a beat as I see waves crashing over the sea wall and realise we will be out on those waves very shortly.
The RNLI has always been a major part of Lowestoft. The town was one of the first places in the country to have a station. The lifeboat was built in 1801 and it is estimated that during the following 49 years more than 300 lives were saved. In 1940, during the Second World War, the lifeboat Michael Stephens also took part in the Dunkirk evacuation, helping to bring soldiers home.
Vanessa, one of the crew of six, hands me bright yellow waterproof bib trousers and a jacket. Suddenly I’m sliding on boots and shoving arms into the lifejacket – clipped, zipped and pulled tight. It all happens in an instant.
The rest of the crew are already making their way to the Tyne-class boat which has been in service here since the late 80s, and a few people have gathered on the pier to watch as we go aboard.
The first thing that strikes me is the cleanliness and outstanding finish to everything – smooth varnished wood around the tables, delicately painted handles and doors, white painted panels and a pristine engine room.
John Fox has served on the crew for 21 years and has been full time coxswain mechanic for the past eight. The lifeboat is his passion. “Look after the equipment and it will look after you,” he says.
The crew prepare for the off. A radio call goes out to the harbour master and the Detroit Diesel V6 engines spark into life, gently ticking over as the 47ft vessel makes its way out of the harbour.
Bouncing along in choppy seas, strapped in, I try to keep my eyes on the horizon. I’m already too hot and sweat begins to gently trickle down my face. Three miles out, heading towards a foreign ship for a training exercise, I become very aware of the three-metre swells that are bouncing us around like a cork on the water – I need air! The engines are cut, the door flung open and I’m leaning over the side – this really isn’t the ideal way to shoot images. Before too long I’m joined by the crew, who assure me it happens to everyone at some point. I know they’re just being kind.
I sigh with relief when the engines are cut further as we reach the container ship. The swell is creating what I perceive as pretty large waves crashing over the bow of the vessel, covering us in salty spray, but I just about hold it together as the crew begins practice drills, their bodies moving in time with the boat.
The crew being put through their paces by the coxswain, are a variety of ages. George is one of the new members and along with Bradley is still on a one-year probation. The 14-person crew at Lowestoft currently has three trainees.
“It takes a lot time, effort and money to train new crew. The training can be particularly tough and requires a lot of commitment,” explains John, shouting above the hum of the engine. Training is carried out at sea weekly and time is also spent in the classroom, learning everything from tying knots to crucial first aid from an experienced doctor who is part of the station team.
The crew also comes from a variety of backgrounds – shipping, offshore and retail – but they all do it for the same reason, to put something back into society. Vanessa says her partner used to be involved with the station and it was something she had always wanted to do.
“It’s an incredible feeling when the pager goes off – the adrenalin kicks in. You never know what you’re going to come across. The feeling you get from saving someone’s life is quite something.”
Joining a lifeboat crew is not for the faint hearted.
“We’re always having people wanting to join our crew, which is great, but many don’t realise the commitment or live too far out of town,” says John. The lifeboat crew are on call 24 hours a day and when that pager goes off, the boat is launched in as little as six minutes, testament to the commitment and passion of this band of volunteers.
The RNLI has more than 4,600 volunteer crew across the UK and launches on average 23 times a day. Running costs are around £144.6m – roughly £396,000 per day – a service funded almost entirley by public donation, which proves, if nothing else, how highly we regard our vital coastal rescue service.
Looking at my watch, eyes stinging from sea salt, I am secretly hoping the ordeal is over and I can return to land. But John has other plans, cheerfully announcing more training down the coast at Kessingland. The boat is bobbing around and it isn’t long before I’m hanging over the side again.
The crew maintain their composure and complete the exercise at the stern of the vessel. Battered by large waves and cold rain, they are still smiling. It’s easy to forget just how dangerous this job can be. Recent calls have involved many hours at sea, returning around 1am, cold, wet and very tired.Just a few weeks earlier they answered a call at 11pm when a man was seen in the water off north Lowestoft.
They reached the scene in minutes and second coxswain Karl Jackson jumped into the sea to support the exhausted man. The crew threw a rope to the pair and pulled them alongside before lifting the casualty on deck and administering first aid. The lifeboat was met in port by emergency services. Thankfully, a life was saved.
Motoring through the harbour entrance back to the mooring, the strict military style operation continues. Buckets brimming with soapy water are produced and the vessel is scrubbed, washing sea water from the bright paintwork.
This year the Spirit of Lowestoft will be replaced by a new class of lifeboat, Shannon. Costing around £2 million, the new vessel will be capable of more than 25 knots and will be powered by water jets, making it incredibly manoeuvrable. Lowestoft will be one of the first stations to have this new class boat as the much loved Spirit of Lowestoft moves on.
“I’ll be sad to see her go,” says John. “I just hope whatever happens to her, that she will be looked after.”