Day 90 Tuesday 28 June: After many days of planning and a few days of changing weather forecasts, only the pilot could make the call. Perfect conditions are not necessary for a light two-seater aircraft such as Neil’s, but safe conditions, i.e. visibility good enough to see the airfield you are planning to land on, are essential. Every update to the forecast showed an increased chance of dense cloud cover, heavier rain and strengthening wind gusts. The Channel Island Lifeboat Stations would have to wait. So, several phone calls and emails later, everyone who needed to know had been contacted.
No point hanging around. Fondo & I don’t need the same conditions on the road. Westward Ho! Not the place in Devon. Been there, done that (unintentionally) when heading for Appledore, many, many Lifeboats ago. Swanage and Exmouth will do for today. From Poole, via the Sandbanks ferry to the last couple of flat miles before a few gentle climbs remind us that we are now approaching the not so insignificant hills along the Dorset and South Devon Jurassic coast. More than forty years since my last visit to Swanage, it hasn’t lost its charm. The weather change hasn’t hit us yet. David, the Swanage ALB coxswain had assured me that, despite the demolition of the old boat house, there would be no difficulty in finding the temporary boat shed. He was right. The big clue, visible from the opposite end of the bay, was the familiar giant jack-up barge, last seen being towed away from the site of St David’s new Lifeboat Station, way back on Day 11 . The construction of the new boathouse, with a double slip launch, is well under way. The bigger of the two slips is for the new Shannon lifeboat, already here, waiting at its temporary mooring. Having cycled 13 miles from Poole, I couldn’t help noticing the new boat’s fleet number, 13 13. The first 13 denotes the 13 metre Shannon Class, the second 13 tells us this is the 13th of its type built. Are David’s crew superstitious? Apparently not. Just as well. The Cox’n went on to explain that this is the 13th Swanage Lifeboat since the first one was commissioned 1875. It has two 13 litre engines. It has two 13 thousand litre fuel tanks. Both 650 horsepower engines combine to produce 13 hundred hp. There are 13 ‘Powerplex’ electronic control boxes. All true. How many 13s are there in this paragraph? Good luck chaps.
Time to move on. But just as I started to roll, the Station PA system squawked loudly “Clear the slipway. Lifeboat launching. Clear the slipway. Lifeboat crew arriving. Keep clear. …” More out of genuine interest than morbid curiosity, I stopped, tucked Fondo out of the way and proceeded to watch and record the whole episode of this real, live fly-on-the-wall drama unfold. The first crew member to join David appeared in just under 4 minutes. Within 7 minutes, there was enough crew to man both ALB and ILB and the boarding boat was out of the temporary boat shed and on its way down the slip. About 4 minutes after the crew boarded the Shannon, the moorings were slipped and it was motoring out of the bay. The D Class ILB had also disappeared around the headland to the south. In the middle of a working weekday, this is a very impressive response time. At the time of writing, the nature and outcome of this double call to service is unknown. I could have waited, possibly for a very long time to find out. But I’m no paparazzi on a moped. I need to reach Weymouth, another 29 miles along the coast before the worst of the weather hits.
I didn’t beat the incoming black clouds. They had the advantage of a strong wind behind them. We met head-on about 10 miles east of Weymouth. I had been warned.
Andy, the Weymouth Cox’n, had invited me to meet his crew around 6.30 this evening, this being their regular Tuesday exercise time. Plenty of time for a hot shower and a quick cuppa at the Harbour House first.
In the middle of the narrow, busy harbour, the big Severn Class ALB was easy enough to find. Many thanks to Andy, Malclom and all the crew for the warm, dry welcome. They’d even stopped the rain and laid on sunshine for my arrival. A peep at the Weymouth Lifeboat website will show you how busy this station is, their two lifeboats being regularly tasked with covering “the treacherous waters off Portland Bill”, a sea area known for throwing up challenges beyond the usual demands of experienced yachtsmen. The only way I would consider sailing anywhere near such waters would be in the company of the most experienced crew, in one of the safest boats to be found. Half an hour later, that’s exactly where I was. What a day this has turned out to be. I am indeed a lucky, privileged chap to have witnessed first hand, the professionalism of an RNLI crew on a navigational exercise. Thanks again to Tye, Kevin, Lyle, both Tims, Andrew and most importantly, the man who drew the short straw, Graham, my personal ‘minder’, who had the unsavoury task of watching my every move and ensuring my safety. I now know just a little more about what most of you Lifeboat men and women are prepared to go through and what many of you have already experienced. My respect for all of you has just gone up another notch.