THE LIFEBOAT COMMUNITY - EXPANDING CIRCLES.
The rock upon which the RNLI is built is undoubtedly community. Life-saving had its genesis in very local community action - people spontaneously got together to save poor souls who were at the mercy of the sea. Doubtless some early lifesavers took a little time to salvage any available goodies from the wreck, but history recounts that this was generally after lifesaving attempts. To-day, despite the massive advances in communications and technology, the bedrock of the RNLI is still local communities. The Institution provides the equipment, the training and support and sets basic standards - but the nucleus of the service still lies in the communities that support each lifeboat.
One of these is Fowey, the home of 'Deneys Reitz' for 25 years.
The Fowey lifeboat station looks out on to the harbour, set in a deep defile, with houses stacked up its sides. The lifeboat is moored nearby, within easy walking or running distance - depending on youth and fitness.... The station has three levels - on the first and ground floors are the crew room, with kit - waterproof overalls in yellow with grey reinforced knees, lifejackets and hard helmets - all neatly laid out and waiting to be grabbed in an emergency. The hard hats are not universally admired by crews, some of whom are inclined to give them names, like 'Prat Hats'. Also on the first and ground floors are showers and toilets and a shop, part of the local fundraising effort.
But the heart of the station is the crew room on the second floor. This is comfortably furnished, with a large table and chairs, armchairs, a canteen with stove, coffee and tea -making equipment and of course, a fridge, usually well-stocked with soft drinks, beer and snacks.
Round the walls are pictures of the current and past lifeboats and, in particular, past Coxes and crews, usually dressed in full kit.
The social life of the station is centred on this room, and the central figure in this is Keith Stuart, the Cox. Keith is a permanent employee of the RNLI, which makes him a factor of constancy - but it is his character and the quiet, natural authority that he exudes which stands out most to strangers. Keith is stocky and bearded, has an air of unhurried calm and a humorous twinkle - seeing him with the crew and the extended family that supports and connects to the lifeboat makes the idea of a tight-knit community very easy to understand.
So the nub of this community are the Cox and crew. And the inner core is Keith and the longer-serving, more senior crew members - and of course the boat, visible at its mooring from the station. Newer or trainee life-boatmen are slightly outside the central circle. Some will become members of the core in time. The authority of the Cox is cemented by the fact that he has been effectively been selected by the crew.
It is also obvious that Keith is well-known and well-bonded with the folk of Fowey.
A walk through the town with him is punctuated by greetings, conversations and jokes shared with many people - he is clearly a prominent character.
Very apparent also is the fact that the wives, girlfriends and families of many of the men are an integral part of the lifeboat community. Wives and children will drop in to the station quite informally for a chat or a coffee on their ways to or from shopping and are treated just like family members, which of course they are. It is also clear that families tend to know each other, so the impact on such communities of a disaster must be felt collectively. But they must also give support to the bereaved if disaster should strike.
There are other figures in the community - we noticed old crew members, now retired, who are treated with casual respect and seemed to feel very comfortable with the present family, so continuity and roots are respected, despite the fact that boats and technology are changing dramatically. Lifeboat Coxes tend to be long serving, but when one is approaching retirement the crew are closely consulted about his replacement. This sensible procedure, which involves the local Hon. Sec., but not the top brass in head office, helps to ensure commitment and continuity and avoids over-control by distant top managers who maybe seem a little too concerned with Mission Statements, Corporate Values and the like.
These observations are personal and obviously based on circumstantial data, so we have no idea of the relative positions of the Hon. Secretary and other officials to the inner family. It probably varies from station to station.
But as everybody loves a lifeboat, there are no barriers of rank and class when it comes to giving support and turning out at public events celebrating the exploits of lifeboatmen or the commissioning of a new boat.
There is much innocent amusement to be garnered from examining old 'photos of prominent dignitaries and citizens dressed in their finery, with plumed cockade hats, chains of office and expansive millinery crowding the wharf at commissioning ceremonies whilst the crews stand at a distance on their boats, clad in Sou'Westers and cork lifejackets, looking a little uncomfortable.
Everybody loves a lifeboat - Deneys Reitz as gatekeeper to a wider community
In Fowey there is also a character who seems to be the Recorder or historian for the Fowey lifeboats. His name is Paul Richards, he drives a harbour passenger launch and seems to be the repository of varied communications and messages - for example, he produced photos of our boat snapped by unknown (to us) people taken when we visited Lowestoft and Inverness.
These somewhat puzzling events are a clue to a much wider circle of communicants. Glimpses of this circle come in many forms - Keith, on hearing that we intend to visit Ireland, gives us a list of people to see, mainly other Coxes and Harbourmasters, with whom he might have shared a drink. He suggests who likes a pint the most and rates them according to their 'Craic' co-efficient. So, true to form, when arriving at Arklow on the Irish East coast, the cox and deputy cox of the local boat, a Trent class as in Fowey, were down to the harbour very quickly. Conversation soon established the fact that Keith Stuart and the similarly bearded Irish cox knew each other ("Sure, he's a fine brave fellow, and a great man for a few pints and a bit o' craic"). From this we gathered that both men knew when to work and when to play and did each with equal vigour and dedication. The Arklow cox left his telephone number, exhorting us to contact him immediately if we needed help anywhere in Ireland. Then again, the Cox of the Tobermory boat on the island of Mull, on hearing that 'Deneys Reitz' hailed from Fowey, asked after Keith and tasked us to pass on his regards.
Keith spends quite a lot of time in other stations, doing locums for Coxes who are on training courses or are ill or on holiday. It seems that he is widely appreciated through the service and therefore goes to wildish places like Shetland. Thus are networks built.
Going wider, we found that there is a band of brothers (mainly) called the Ex-Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society. This club for lifeboat groupies is a serious affair. Through their magazine, they track the movements and doings of current lifeboats, ex-lifeboats ("Where are they now"?) and even have a modelling section. Once, we wrote an article for the mag., describing, (maybe defending), the conversion of Deneys Reitz. This sparked off contacts from all over - Scotland, England, France, Norway and Holland - with invitations to visit Stavanger and several other interesting places.
The helmsman of a yacht in Tallin harbour, Estonia, recognised an ex-lifeboat, heard we were from Suffolk, declared in fruity accents that he was the Hon. Sec. of the Aldeborough lifeboat and "we should drop in for a drink sometime".
When in Whitby, we exchanged friendly hoots with "Mary Ann Hepworth", the ex-lifeboat now engaged in making punters squeal at the harbour mouth as she went out for a trip round the bay. Then, also in Whitby, we were visited by a slightly anxious man who had bought the old lifeboat from Courtmacsherry on the southern Irish coast. It was the same model as ours, and he had found it chocked up in a field. Fired with the ambition to have a boat of real character to take him and his wife for adventures, he serviced the engines, hired a crewman, had it launched, and when the worst of the leaking had stopped, sailed the boat up to Cape Wrath and so round the North of Scotland and on to Whitby. His wife said that the weather was horrible and that she had adopted a foetal position under the table for most of the trip. So would we, as the waves were frequently 7 metres high!
His questions to us were:
- How had we converted our boat?
- What could he do for £10,000?
Oh God, what do you say? It cost us more than this to simply strip the boat out, before even starting any conversion work. Last we saw, a year later, the boat had sadly swapped a pitch in a field near Courtmacsherry for one in a field near Whitby.
When in Karlskrona, a port in Southern Sweden, we were awakened at 5.45 am by a Pole, en route by ferry to Riga, who was desperate to know whether our boat was a Watson 47 - and when this was confirmed, where did the Cox ("What a hero!") steer the original boat from and did it have Gardner engines?
Once on the Ostend-Ghent canal, a shifty looking bloke shuffled up while we were waiting for a lock. "Better keep an eye on that cove, I'll bet he's up to something nefarious", said a friend. The object of suspicion examined the boat carefully, smiled as if struck by insoiration, came to the wheelhouse door, knocked politely and croaked, "Air, En, Ell, Ee"? (RNLI in Belgian, I won't say it again).
We won't go on about Norwegians - they're wonderfully curious, and warm towards Brits (but alas, not Germans, unfortunately for them) - suffice it to say that you will never be alone or without a drink in Norway with a British ex-lifeboat, which in concept are not all that dissimilar to the famous Norwegian design by Colin Archer. Typically Norwegians (usually men) would wander up to the boat, walk up and down appraising it minutely and then if we showed any signs of recognition, would offer the view that it was a nice conversion. Then they would launch into fascinating histories of their maritime travels, lifeboats they had known and local sailing tips. Often, this led to invitations aboard, inspection of the engine room and current living facilities; a glass of wine, leading to many more glasses, culminating in slurred farewells and invitations to go out in cars to see local sights the next day. One young man, studying art in Bergen, cycled several miles round the harbour to tell us what a beautiful boat “Deneys” was.
So, the Fowey community is but the nucleus of a much wider society, the tentacles of which stretch across the world.
Then what of us, outsiders who came and bought one of their boats long after the original crew had lost touch with its welfare and whereabouts?
Well, people like us don't join such a community, because we have nothing to do with its central purposes and experiences. But, there is a good feeling towards the old boat, and a polite, helpful and tolerant attitude towards us - at least, as somebody in Fowey said, we have stopped 'Deneys' from rotting away. But this tolerance is tinged with ambiguity. They remember an ex-lifeboat, somebody said on the VHF, as "Our old boat".
Now they are confronted with a cruising boat, still recognisable in parts, but distinctly prettified. When we took the plans to show to some of the old crew, they were uncertain as to how they should feel. On the one hand, at least the boat wouldn't die, on the other, "It isn't a lifeboat any more". It was a bit like the boat had died, been taken away to some other place and then unexpectedly resurrected - only the manly person that had passed away unexpectedly returned amongst them prettified and smelling slightly of perfume!
Then, they asked if we would keep the name, and when we concurred, sent us on our way feeling encouraged - and with a name that is incomprehensible to almost every harbour radio! (We have taken to using its call-sign, Mike Tango Tango Golf.)
But Keith, Brian Willis, Deneys's last Cox, and the old crew have been more than helpful and very courteous; invited us to lifeboat musters at Fowey and made us able to feel some affinity with the special community at Fowey. When we brought the completed boat to Fowey, Brian Willis and the Hon. Sec. with wives came out. There was no doubt who was going to drive, so Don simply stood aside whilst Brian Willis took command, pushed the throttles until they bent, getting untold revs from the engines - until a jubilee clip on a cooling hose slipped and the engine room was sprayed by hot water, the engine temperature rocketed up and we had to shut the engine down hurriedly and return on one.
Brian was quite unrepentant. We got the feeling that he had confirmed his view that the boat had become poncified. He completed the trip by turning the boat on one engine in the restricted confines of Fowey harbour, scorning the bow-thruster, which manifestly was part of the 'softy' kit, not needed when it was a real boat.
The last time we visited Fowey, Keith invited us out on a training session on the current boat, 'Maurice and Joyce Hardy', a craft of similar length and weight to 'Deneys Reitz'. There any resemblance stops - 'Deneys' has 240 horsepower and burns 12 litres of diesel and hour at 8 knots, the modern boat has 1850 horsepower, burns 350 litres an hour at 25 knots!
Training days happen once a fortnight and last for a couple of hours or so. The crew for the day consisted of Keith and four or five of the regulars plus three trainees. This trip gave Charlotte the opportunity to watch the crew at work in the wheelhouse while Don stood on the fly-bridge, praying that Keith might give him a go - but that's another story.......