Day 79 Thurs 2 June: The Lifeboat Stations visited today are amongst the newest RNLI Stations in the country. A new search and rescue service for the River Thames was announced on 22 January, 2001. The RNLI was asked by the Government to provide lifeboat cover, the first time specifically covering a river rather than estuarial waters, coastlines and open sea. This came as a result of the findings of the Thames Safety Inquiries into the collision between the pleasure cruiser The Marchioness and the dredger Bowbelle, which resulted in the loss of 51 lives in 1989.
The boats used at Tower and Chiswick are a completely new class of ILB, only found on the Thames. These E Class boats are the fastest on the fleet, with a capability of 40 knots, powered through water jets rather than props. So clearly, that’s why so many people in London are keen to join the RNLI. Big boys’ & big girls’ powerful toys. If you’re lucky, you can even be paid to do this as a full time job. Unusual in the RNLI, where most crew members are volunteers. More seriousy, full time paid or volunteer crew, this is not all fun. These stations are by far the busiest, most frequently called out in the country, by a huge margin, with hundreds of calls for assistance each year. The closest any of the coastal lifeboats comes to this is at nearby Southend-on-Sea, historically (and still) the busiest of the original A/ILB Stations.
I suppose this demand is understandable, with one of the world’s biggest, densely populated cities being built on the banks of such a huge river. People and water. A vital, but deadly combination. This is where the RNLI’s “Respect the Water” campaign began. The idea that people need educating about such obvious dangers may seem a bit condescending, but the evidence is out there. We are an amazingly sophisticated, intelligent species, but with a habit of losing all sense of our own limitations and capabilities when faced with the lure of some nice sparkly water. I’ve probably touched on this before but mke no apologies for repetition, deviation, hesitation or repetition …. As well as the tragic accidents, there are increasingly frequent reports of non accidental use of bridges as a permanent and final escape from life’s problems, stresses and strains. When a Lifeboat crew returns to base with a live rescue accomplished, the crew’s reward has to be the huge satisfaction of being part of a job well done and that important sense of purpose in life and usefulness to their fellow beings. However, when the call comes too late and the rescue becomes a matter of search and recovery, that’s when the job must become pretty grim.
On a more cheerful note, the Chiswick and Teddington crew members we have met today, like the Tower crew already mentioned on Day 78, are positive, professional, friendly folk with a realistic outlook. I say “we”, as today I have the pleasure of my own personal local guide, my Barnes based cycling sister Linda, who has clearly done ‘The Knowledge’, the London Cabbies’ complete absorption of the London A-Z Street Map. She has the uncanny knack of finding a seemingly circuitous route, via much more interesting landmarks (each accompanied by a fascinating anecdote or snippet of local history) and still able to arrive at the destination the same day. Something to fall back on when times get hard. I think the lifeboat crew members we met today were as fascinated by my enthusiastic sister as I was by them and their Lifeboats. Many thanks to Peter (Duty Helm), John and Holly (crew) at Chiswick for the great welcome, coffee and full tour of the amazing E Class boat. The first time I’ve boarded one.
On to Teddington Lock, via Richmond Park and maybe the Brecon Beacons. Great cycling roads. Who’d have thought we were just a stone’s throw from the bustling City centre? On arrival at Teddington ILB Station, we were very warmly welcomed by Tim James (voluntary crew member) and Hillary Saw, Chair of the local Lifeboat committee. This ILB Station uses two D class boats, covering a long stretch of the river, up and downstream, centred around Teddington Lock. Maybe not as busy as Chiswick and Tower, but still very much needed and at least as busy as a typical coastal ILB Station.
It had already been a very successful day and it wasn’t over yet. The next event was intirely masterminded by my very enterprising genius of a sister. Never one to miss an opportunity, Linda had planned an RNLI fundraising event, an evening drinks party at her home in Barnes. A great success. A big thank you to Linda’s very kind friends, colleagues and neighbours for the many donations already received via the online giving page, including some of those who couldn’t make it on the night but still made generous contributions to the RNLI. Another great big thank you to my sister for providing the venue, the good food & drink and for successfully kidnapping one of the Teddington crew we’d met earlier in the day. Thanks Tim, the real-life local London Lifeboatman, for being there and sharing your experiences. Most illuminating and much appreciated by all.
If you’d like to support my fundraising challenge, please click here , where every pound raised will go directly to the RNLI, the charity that saves lives at sea. And on the Thames! Thank you. Steven.