New English word? Translate any word using double click.
A Working Life: The Lifeboat Volunteer
Read this article about one of Britain’s best-loved charities, The Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and what life is like for a volunteer. Remember:
- Double-click any word for its meaning and pronunciation.
- Press ‘Play’ to listen to the article.
- Answer the questions at the end of the article.
Mark Bell is patiently trying to explain what sponsons are and how tidal flows work, but he keeps getting interrupted by a succession of friendly faces. “It’s busy today,” he smiles, acknowledging the obvious camaraderie on display among the lifeboat crew at Brighton’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) station, “but it’s less noisy on a freezing night at 2am when we’ve had an emergency call from the coastguard.”
We’re in a square brick building in Brighton marina which, at 51 hectares (127 acres), is one of the largest in Europe. The RNLI building was built 13 years ago with funds from a legacy donation left by a generous local lady. “We’re a charity that relies on donations and funding to maintain a service, so that was priceless,” Bell says.
The RNLI raises about £170m annually, which pays for the operation of 235 lifeboat stations across the UK and 341 lifeboats operated by nearly 7,600 volunteers. In 2009, the busiest year in the RNLI’s history, 9,223 lifeboat launches took place and 8,235 people were rescued from their vessels or the water.
On the day we meet, Bell is preparing for one of the two weekly training sessions held at the station. Behind us a young trainee is being tested by an instructor on his rope-pulling prowess – trainees have to be able to recover 50m of rope with a 15kg weight attached in 90 seconds if they are to become crew. Trainees must complete nine months of tuition on everything from pyrotechnics to first aid, eventually completing a week-long residential course. Those who pass will be eligible to become crew, should they be selected.
“Our training – all-year-round, twice a week, day and night, in all conditions – gives us confidence in each other, in our lifeboat and in our equipment,” Bell explains, nodding at the younger pupil. “Without it we wouldn’t have the skill set and experience to operate as an effective search and rescue unit.”
Bell joined the Brighton RNLI in 2006 having moved down from London. “I’d sailed all my life but could never commit the time to it,” he remembers. “When I moved here I walked straight up to the RNLI building and asked to join.”
He had unwittingly volunteered at one of the busiest RNLI stations on the south coast – the crew launch their inshore lifeboat (known as an ILB) at least once a week to rescue commercial boats, one of the 1,600 marina berth-holders or a never-ending succession of holidaymakers who get themselves into difficulty.
Bell and I follow the instructor and his pupil out of the station and down a ramp to a weathered boathouse, where we find the Thelma Glossop, a bright orange B-class Atlantic 75 ILB with a top speed of 32 knots. It can hold up to four crew, though the optimum is three. The trainee is moving around the boat answering questions from his instructor while Bell looks on, smiling as he remembers his own schooling.
He says the trainee might have been issued with a dilemma by his instructor, such as if a yacht is sinking in heavy weather, do you ask the skipper to jump off his mast and rescue him from the water, or do you drive the boat up to him? I stare blankly when Bell puts the scenario to me – he laughs kindly at my obvious lack of knowledge.
Bell is a web developer who works from home and can therefore be on call 24/7. A crew diary is kept so everyone knows who is available at any given time. People who cannot get away from their jobs during the day make sure they are on call during the night. Either way, it’s a huge commitment.
“It’s an enormously rewarding thing to do, but it does become a huge part of your life and it can put an enormous strain on your family and employer,” Bell admits. So what motivates him to do the role – for free? “In Brighton our busiest months are generally May to September, when the beaches are busier and the marina berth holders head out to sea. But, like many of us, I do it for the winter months when the incidents tend to be a little more serious and the conditions are fairly unpleasant. At 2am in a freezing February storm we are likely to be able to make a much more profound difference on the outcome of an incident.”
The crew begin to gather in a large communal area with a 270-degree view of the marina, sea and coastline, and banter like any group of close friends who work and socialise together. They chat excitedly while throwing me curious but friendly glances. Bell explains that there is little laughing or joking when a call goes out.
“On a launch everyone is on autopilot and there’s no idle chit-chat. We’re all establishing the facts: the location and condition of any casualties, while also rushing to the boat and launching into the water. The first few minutes are intense.”
The Brighton station is generally unmanned, but when the coastguard issues an alert all crew are paged and those who are available rush to the station. They have a target of getting there within five minutes, while the ILB is launched within six to eight minutes of the initial call (the RNLI’s national average launch time is eight and a half minutes).
The station’s operations manager or one of his deputies then gives the go-ahead to launch, but it is the helmsman (with more experience than the rest of the crew) who has the final say on whether it is safe to launch the boat. “This station has refused to launch only once in six years when it was really severe weather and the body (clearly identified as deceased) we were due to recover would have washed up on the beach anyway.”
Last month, Bell “passed out” as a helmsman, finally taking on the ultimate responsibility. “It’s a huge step, but when the pager goes off now I have renewed enthusiasm to fight through sleepy eyes and the darkness and rain and get out to sea.”
He shows me their equipment room. Crew wear a thermal undersuit underneath an all-in-one dry suit, complete with steel-plated wellies and inflatable knee pads, as well as a life jacket which can support up to four people in the water. All the outfits seem to dwarf me, hanging as they are from giant rails, but there are uniforms to fit all the men and women of the Brighton RNLI, a mixed bunch with no maritime backgrounds – just 10% of RNLI trainees hail from “fishing families”.
Education and prevention
While we chat, Bell and I occasionally stare out at a calm sea that sparkles in the summer sun – but the weather can soon become unpredictable. Waves often go from one metre to three metres high very quickly and there are rapid tidal changes and sea fog can drift in very quickly, suddenly turning a clear day into one of low visibility. “People who do not live near the coast might not appreciate what a southerly or a northerly wind is and how that might affect the conditions,” Bell says. “We often help people who don’t even know they are in trouble, but if they tried they would be completely unable to get back to shore.”
This is why another sizeable chunk of the RNLI’s income is spent on education (almost £5m on “prevention” last year alone) and why Bell and his crew find themselves speaking at boy scout groups and sailing clubs throughout the year, as well as hosting open days. “It can make the difference between someone choosing to swim in dangerous conditions or remaining on the beach,” he says.
Bell’s face momentarily darkens while he remembers difficult scenarios he has faced in the past. “A couple of years ago there was a stag party enjoying themselves on the beach when one of the guys was swept out to sea. We found him within 10 minutes of him getting into trouble but he was unresponsive and didn’t pull through.
“It’s strange because, at other times, you’ll get to someone who has been drifting for three hours and they are absolutely fine. You never get used to seeing people who have passed away. It is always shocking. If we can’t help someone, at least we know we’ve been able to get them back to their family.”
Not all call-outs take place for life-threatening scenarios. In 2009 the RNLI rescued 111 animals, while 3,676 people suffered from weever fish or jellyfish stings, 330 had sand in their eyes, 13 had been bitten by a dog and 130 people had a broken or stubbed toe.
For those aged between 18 and 45 who are interested in becoming part of an RNLI lifeboat crew, Bell’s advice is to get in touch with your local station. The Brighton RNLI gets about one inquiry a week and accepts about four or five people a year.
He may be a self-confessed “computer geek who loves rustling up a quick web application”, but he now has much more to look after than pixels and computer code. “Becoming a helmsman is a huge step, taking responsibilty for the crew, the boat and the safety of survivors we are tasked to assist, but it’s one I’m relishing.”
Pay £0. All crew are volunteers.
Hours Bell is on call 24/7, unless he books time off for other commitments.
Work-life balance Can be difficult. “My girlfriend, Hannah, is incredibly supportive and I’m fortunate to have a flexible job, which makes it easier. We can all get a little ‘boated out’ at times; there have been weeks where, between incidents and training, I’ve been at sea nearly every day.”
Highs “The crew are a really close knit, professional team, so it’s a great feeling to go out to sea in rough weather, get the job done and come home safely.”
Lows “Dealing with loss. There is comfort in knowing that we all put in 100%, but the trauma of some incidents can take a while to come to terms with.”
Mark is a sucker for books ‘I’m always diving into one of the great independent shops in Brighton for a recipe or creative arts book.’ Mark’s girlfriend is ex-RNLI crew so ‘totally understands’ when he gets paged while at home or relaxing. Mark’s favourite holiday spot is the Red Sea, Sharm-el-Sheikh. Mark unwinds by sailing. ‘I don’t do nearly as much as I’d like, but it blows the cobwebs away and recharges the batteries.’ At parties people say to him: ‘Good on you’, or ‘that sounds exciting’, before asking about the rough weather.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
True, False or Don’t Know?
- Most emergency calls come at night.
- A donor left money in her will to set up the RNLI centre in Brighton.
- Volunteers need to have had experience at sea.
- Mark Bell knew that Brighton was one of the busiest centres in Europe.
- If you have a day job, you must be prepared to rescue at night.
- Due to his work, Mark has limits on the hours he can volunteer.
- In summer there are more incidents, but not as serious.
- There is a 24-hour watch at the centre, waiting for calls.
- Part of a volunteer’s job is telling young people about the dangers.
- His social life has been affected by his work for the RNLI.
Now find the words that mean:
- Togetherness = (1st paragraph)
- Earns (for charity) = (3rd para.)
- Large boat = (3rd)
- Qualified = (4)
- Devote = (6)
- Without knowing = (7)
- Measurement of nautical speed = (8)
- Given = (9)
- Result = (11)
- Come together = (12)
- Most emergency calls come at night. DON’T KNOW
- A donor left money in her will to set up the RNLI centre in Brighton. TRUE
- Volunteers need to have had experience at sea. FALSE
- Mark Bell knew that Brighton was one of the busiest centres in Europe. FALSE
- If you have a day job, you must be prepared to rescue at night. TRUE
- Due to his work, Mark has limits on the hours he can volunteer. FALSE
- In summer there are more incidents, but not as serious. TRUE
- There is a 24-hour watch at the centre, waiting for calls. FALSE
- Part of a volunteer’s job is telling young people about the dangers. TRUE
- His social life has been affected by his work for the RNLI. DON’T KNOW
- Togetherness = Camaraderie (1st paragraph)
- Earns (for charity) = Raises (3rd para.)
- Large boat = Vessel (3rd)
- Qualified = Eligible (4)
- Devote = Commit (6)
- Without knowing = Unwittingly (7)
- Measurement of nautical speed = Knot (8)
- Given = Issued (9)
- Result = Outcome (11)
- Come together = Gather (12)