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Dorset Lives: Top of the E-class – Holly Phillips MBE

Naval architect Holly Phillips MBE talks to Lindsay Neal

Holly on board an E-class boat at Victoria Embankment on the Thames with (right to left) the LWT building, Southbank Tower, Shard, Walkie Talkie, Cheese-Grater and Gherkin beyond

Holly on board an E-class boat at Victoria Embankment on the Thames with (right to left) the LWT building, Southbank Tower, Shard, Walkie Talkie, Cheese-Grater and Gherkin beyond

For some the lure of the sea is impossible to resist. People like Holly Phillips, the RNLI’s principal naval architect who was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last year in recognition of her dedication to maritime safety after project managing the design and manufacture of the E-class lifeboat, the fastest in the fleet.
‘As far back as I can remember if it was a boat I was in it, on it, under it – there’s a photo of me aged five in a boat on a beach trying to row it off the sand,’ she says. ‘I’m sure mum was just trying to keep me safe and eventually I worked out I needed water to make it move.’
Nearly 40 years later that love of boats brought her to Windsor Castle to receive the MBE from HM The Queen.
‘That was certainly a peak of my life. Her Majesty recalled coming to open the RNLI College, the only time in history a representative from every RNLI station in the country has been together at the same time. I was really nervous especially when it came to walking backwards away from Her Majesty in heeled shoes that I never wear!’
Although born and brought up near Richmond, where she was on the Thames at any given opportunity, the young Holly was no stranger to Swanage lifeboat crew after her grandfather bought a house near the old station. By the age of 12 she was helping out on the passenger boats from Swanage Quay every school holiday and in time ran one of the boats herself as skipper.
‘I was on the water every single day and there’s no doubt that knowing how to handle a boat and how it actually works on the water makes me a better engineer.’
After completing a degree in Ship Science at Southampton University Holly returned to Dorset and worked for a maritime engineering company in Poole designing high performance rudders. She joined Poole lifeboat crew in 1994 and despite moving to Swanage in 1999 remained actively involved until 2012.
In 2002 she joined the RNLI as a senior naval architect, based at the Institution’s headquarters in Poole, where she works on the design, manufacture and in-service support of lifeboats and equipment. It’s immensely detailed work requiring minute consideration of a myriad of factors from performance, reliability and maintainability, to the care of casualties, the environmental footprint, crew safety and, ultimately, the cost.
‘It’s very much a collaboration,’ she says, instinctively deflecting the limelight. ‘There is a whole team of designers, engineers, operators, builders and maintainers that work on the design of a new lifeboat. I took the E-class project on in about 2007 and although the boats have been operational since 2012 we only actually finished the final project wrap ups last year.’

The E-class lifeboat letting rip on the River Thames

The E-class lifeboat letting rip on the River Thames

The E-class boats use cutting-edge technology and are extremely agile, but also very robust. They are designed specifically for use on the River Thames from lifeboat stations at Chiswick and Tower, near Waterloo Bridge, the busiest crew in the country with 543 launches in 2014 that helped save 16 lives.
‘The Thames is a very testing environment and the two stations couldn’t be more different. At Chiswick there’s mainly leisure traffic in calm water, but at Tower it’s all heavy commercial vessels with a lot of first aid calls to deal with. So the project begins with a list of requirements which we do our best to accommodate and there are some compromises along the way, but in the end we have a boat that works that everyone is happy with.’
Holly is still a little bewildered by the award of the MBE. She keeps it at home in a drawer and the only time she has added the letters to her name was in a reference for a friend’s job application.
‘My team made me a mock MBE out of cardboard and a length of old anchor warp and left it on my desk – that means the absolute world to me because without them there would be no medal. When I was away on trials or whatever they were in the office backfilling all the work I would have been doing.
‘Knowing about the award was a very odd situation to be in because as a team, just like any crew, you trust one another implicitly and yet you’re not allowed to tell anyone. In the end I had to ask if I could tell my team before the announcement was made because I didn’t want them to find out about it when they read it in the paper.’
It’s not every day you collect an MBE from The Queen and not only was Holly able to take her mum Lindy and sister Antonia with her for the big day out, she also got tickets for two old friends Steve Vince and Ian Marsh who previously served on Poole and Swanage lifeboats respectively.
‘That was one of the best things about the award, treating my mum and my sister and being able to acknowledge those two guys who were instrumental in helping me follow my dream.’

 Holly at the helm of Old Harry (Barnaby Quaddy)

Holly at the helm of Old Harry (Barnaby Quaddy)

As for the future she’s less concerned about repeating the success herself than about other members of her team working on future projects ‘so they can have that incredible experience as well – I learned so much working on the design and a lot about myself as well. Most of our work is about keeping the fleet going, it’s picking up the phone to answer questions about the lifeboats and I get as much joy from doing that on a daily basis as anything else.’
When not at work Holly is invariably either going to or coming from the sea. A dedicated member of Swanage’s Sea Rowing Club, she trains the coxes in the fine art of Cornish pilot gig racing, promoting the sport as a fitness activity for all ages and raising money for the community.
‘We like to get anyone involved who wants to be, whether they row or just want to look at the boats. There’s obviously quite a big crossover with the Swanage lifeboat crew, many of whom are members of the rowing club and we have a very active junior section, which is where the future lies.’ ◗

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