For those in peril…
At the heart of Swanage's RNLI are the town's people, and humour, as Joël Lacey discovers
Published in May ’13
Punctuated by staccato bursts of speech from the radio, laughter is the most frequently heard sound when, sitting around a chart table in the top office of Swanage’s RNLI station, are the Station Mechanic, Dave Turnbull, its Head Launcher, Jon Deare, Coxswain Martin Steeden and Gavin, one of his two sons to follow Martin onto the lifeboats. Gavin, who is a helmsman on the inshore lifeboat and crew and navigator on the 14-tonne, Mersey Class lifeboat Robert Charles Brown (the eleventh lifeboat to work from Swanage since the station opened in 1875) is, like his father also a carpenter in the town.
Martin married into the lifeboat service as his father-in-law was, as he is today, coxswain of the Swanage lifeboat: ‘Work was different and society was different then,’ Martin recalls. ‘When I joined we had a crew of twelve, but now we have to have a crew of 27, just to make sure that we can muster six. My father-in-law (Victor Marsh) only had one holiday while he was in the lifeboats…’, right on cue and to much laughter, Gavin adds: ‘and it lasted years, right until he retired’.
There is still a strong sense of family about the crew at the station. ‘I remember seeing your mother-in-law pulling the cable back up to the station on her own,’ Jon says to Martin, ‘and then she’d make the tea as well.’ Gavin and his brother Matthew (who was one of three of Victor’s grandsons to be christened on the then lifeboat on the same day in August 1983) were almost born to join the crew: ‘We used to help out from the age of about four.’
Dave Turnbull is the exception rather than the rule at the station, as he is a full-time employee of the RNLI, rather than a volunteer, but he too followed his father (Malcolm) into the crew after the family moved to Swanage from ‘up North’. His full-time role demonstrates that, whilst the RNLI is still completely reliant on its volunteers and public fund-raising, it has become and has had to become more and more professional over the years.
‘Time was,’ Jon remembers, ‘if you could play a decent game of cricket you’d probably get on the crew.’ Nowadays, Martin says: ‘it may take years of being on the fringes of the crew before you become a full member. We need to see that someone is reliable, that they are dedicated and that they turn up to shouts and the Wednesday training. It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you can’t ever turn up because of work or other commitments, then you are not going to be much use as volunteer lifeboat crew.’
The ability to receive and answer a page and get to the station is one of two key factors in joining the Swanage crew. The second is the ability to get on with the rest of the crew. This might initially, from the outside, seem a little cliquey, but when the lifeboat is out at sea in poor weather and lives may be at stake, the ability to get on with your crewmates is not an optional extra, but an operational requirement.
The Swanage RNLI station was established in 1875 (see panel), eight months after the wreck of the brig Wild Wave of Exeter on Peveril Ledge. According to Martin: ‘Peveril Ledge has been there five million years, and since men have been in boats, they’ve been trying to knock lumps off it. Swanage is unique in its location in that it’s so easy to get access to the sea. You can get in a boat and in a few minutes you can be at sea. A sea,’ which he adds with a rare note of seriousness, ‘is a very strict teacher. Swanage Bay is safe, until the wind turns easterly; the headlands at Peveril Point and St Albans Head can be terrible and, when the wind changes and freshens on an ebb-tide, conditions can change almost instantly and when darkness falls, it is easy for people to get disorientated. We don’t [often have to] save many lives,’ Martin says, ‘but we don’t half get a lot of people out of trouble.’
‘We’re on a route from Portland to the Isle of Wight for pleasure yachts. In the past we’ve had people trying to navigate along the coast using road maps!’
Advances in technology have made things better, but there is nothing to stop someone from programming in a route, setting a boat to autopilot whilst ignorant of the shallowness of the sea above the coast’s ledges, particularly at low tide. It is not just for the pleasure sailors that advances in technology have meant a change in their modus operandi, the level of training required to cope with all the technological innovations, has an impact on the lifeboat crew and the organisation as as well. ‘Technology changes so quickly,’ Dave Turnbull points out, ‘that if the RNLI puts out half a dozen new navigation aids to trial, by the time one has been selected, there’s no guarantee the manufacturer still makes it.’
‘This has meant a new approach to equipping the boats with technology,’ Dave adds. ‘We’re trying to make sure that the screens the crew look at, when they’ve rolled out of bed to go to sea at four in the morning is the same as they were looking at three the previous afternoon, even if all the technology behind the panel has been changed in between.’
This would seem to match the crew and the institution. As society changes, and behind the scenes, the crew changes with time, yet the Swanage lifeboat service is unchanging in the service it offers to the town’s sailors, its visitors and mariners as far as 34 miles away – the station’s record distance for a shout. For a crew made up of fishermen, carpenters, an estate agent, deputy headteacher, gardener, shopfitter and others, they’re a tight bunch; So what makes it special? Well it is the third highest money-raising RNLI station after the Channel Islands – or ‘the highest that’s not a tax haven,’ as Gavin puts it. Perhaps, appropriately, Gavin should have the last word: ‘Swanage RNLI is unique, and so are all the other RNLI stations; that’s what we all have in common.’
• For information on Swanage’s lifeboat station, visit www.swanagelifeboat.org.uk
For details of events in Swanage Lifeboat Week (9-18 August 2013) visit www.swanagelifeboatweek.org.uk
How Swanage came to have a lifeboat station
On 23 January 1875, the brigantine Wild Wave of Exeter was wrecked on Peveril Ledge in a southerly gale. At 0500 when rockets were fired she was on her beam ends. After tremendous efforts, made in the dark hours before a winter dawn, four men and a boy were rescued by Coastguards in four-oared open boats.
A telegram had been sent to Poole, whose lifeboat Daylight was towed round by the tug steamer Royal Albert, but they had seven miles to struggle through the gale and when they arrived the survivors had just been taken off.
J C Robinson, of Newton Manor, had been watching from the shore and he wrote, in a letter to The Times: ‘Swanage has hitherto had no lifeboat, but after this morning’s work we shall supply that want.’ He described how Coastguards took out two boats, but the boats could not get near enough and how, at daylight, ‘…five dark sodden bundles, rather than living creatures were seen, all clustered together, clinging to a mass of tangled rigging, at the highest part of the ship’s hull.’ Coastguard boats were manned again, the wind moderated and shifted a point or two. ‘Soon we see a coil of rope thrown from the largest boat and caught by one of the living “bundles” on the ship’s hull, and in a few minutes (thanks be to Heaven!) all five—one a very small one, a poor little benumbed lad of 10 or 11 (who had been washed off once and caught again by the ‘scruff’ of the neck like a drowning dog) were safely stowed in the boat.’ He added as a postscript: ‘Now, Sir, I have written this account less to record the excellent discipline, efficiency, and gallantry of the Swanage Coastguard, than to call attention to the urgent needs of the district and the adjacent coast. It will scarcely be believed that along all the line of the coast of Dorset and Hants, from Portland to Hurst Castle, there is not a single lighthouse nor a single harbour of refuge!’ Mr Robinson was prepared to take direct action himself. Both he and G Burt, of Purbeck House, at the scene of the wreck proposed to present £20 each towards a lifeboat.
Richard Lewis, RNLI secretary, wrote to him: ‘With reference to your letter in The Times … I beg to say that I have no doubt the National Lifeboat Institution will be quite prepared to organize a Lifeboat Station at Swanage should it be found desirable and practicable to carry out your suggestion.’ It was so found and the lifeboat Charlotte Mary was on station at Swanage by September.