With just over a fortnight to go until the launch of the new and improved Berwick Lifeboat Festival on August 4 at Carr Rock, Spittal, Berwick Advertiser reporter Kirsty Smyth and photographer Kimberley Powell joined the lifeboat crew on exercise to find out more about the RNLI and its role here in Berwick.
Of the 200-plus RNLI lifeboat stations along the coast of the UK and Republic of Ireland, only a few actually use a slipway or ramp to get their vessels into the water.
Berwick, of course, is one of the minority, which is why I find myself hurtling down the slip with the sea seemingly coming up to meet me at an alarming pace.
Naively, I had thought there would be some kind of controlled descent, perhaps using a winch system or other. But no. The need for speed is a given, and as far as I can tell it’s foot off the brake and away.
And as I sit, hanging on to a handy handle with a white-knuckled grip, the crew calmly go about their business, moving along the 11.77metre-long deck of the Mersey class all weather lifeboat, even as it picks up speed towards the water, accelerating into the inevitable splash at the bottom - they’re clearly much cooler than me.
To be fair, they’re also more practised. All crew members undergo a thorough training programme, including a stint at the RNLI College in Poole which consists of both theoretical and practical sessions, and a 12-month probationary period. And that’s not the end of it - the situations crew may face are ever changing and unpredictable, so training is an ongoing process.
The RNLI insists that successful rescues are all about teams working together, and that emphasis is clear to see as I watch them work. The team here is impressive, each member a vital cog in a well-oiled machine, and they go about their routine with almost effortless efficiency - it’s second nature to them.
Many of the Berwick crew are long-standing members, but there are recent recruits too. From varying walks of life, a mix of ages and professions – policemen, joiners, engineers – the crew have at least two things in common: they all live within a certain radius of Berwick Lifeboat Station, and they all volunteer their time to save lives at sea.
It takes a special kind of person to cope with the risks associated with lifeboat rescues. The Berwick crew know better than most the perils of the North Sea.
Crew members are, by definition, selfless, dependable, trustworthy and courageous. And the Berwick bunch are wholly dedicated to their volunteer roles (the only paid member is the lifeboat’s full-time mechanic).
“We have a good bunch here,” long-serving Coxswain Raymond Karolewski tells me. “We never struggle to get crew members and we stick together.
“A lot of the time we will go out and tow someone in, and they were never in any danger. They just needed a bit of help, and that’s what we’re here for,” Raymond says. “But there are times when it can be really very serious too.”
The team is made up of two parts – the onboard crew and the equally-important launchers – and is alerted by pager in the event of an emergency.
Whether at home, at work or even asleep, they drop everything and rush to the lifeboat station, arriving most commonly in cars or on foot, but I’m told children’s scooters and even a ride-on grass cutter have been utilised by crew attempting to answer a shout as quickly as possible.
Head launcher Alex Robertson, who is responsible for the safe and efficient launch and recovery of the lifeboat, says crew members adapt their daily routines to ensure they can answer a shout as quickly as possible. “When you go to bed you have your clothes laid out in a certain way, things like that,” he explains. “The alarm clock goes off and I could maybe sleep through it, but I’m instantly awake with the pager - it just has that tone.”
Alex’s wife Deborah is deputy head launcher, and may have joined after being abandoned by her husband one too many times.
“Once, before my wife joined, we were having a coffee in a cafe and the pager went off,” Alex remembers.
“I ran out of the place, and unfortunately for her I had the money! She had to explain and we went back the next day to pay.”
One or both lifeboats usually launch within six minutes of the pager alert.
Practice makes perfect, and the crew often goes through the routine during weekly exercise, running through the procedures and ensuring their skills are kept up to date.
After we launch, two crew members are designated ‘casualties’ for the training session.
The first is left stranded and supposedly injured on a largely submerged rock known as the Bear’s Head off Spittal.
Information soon feeds through to us that a concerned member of the public has reported a person on the rock to the coastguard, and it is reassuring to know that the general public are alert to any potential problems off the coast.
The inshore (or smaller, inflatable) lifeboat locates and collects the ‘casualty’, transporting him back to the all weather vessel on a spinal board, the crew gelling to roll him up and onto the ‘big boat’ as safely and efficiently as possible, a feat they manage in double quick time.
The second ‘casualty’, crew member Mark Stanbra, draws a really short straw, and is dumped unceremoniously into the water in a ‘man overboard’ simulation.
The rest of the crew go to his aid, and after a little circling, pointing and laughing from the inflatable - which I’m assured wouldn’t happen in a ‘real life’ situation - the crew snaps into rescue mode and Mark is quickly back on board.
As the session comes to an end, photographer Kimberley Powell and I are helped into the inshore boat and given a lift back to the slip, while the rest of the crew clean the vessel before readying it for its next launch.
It’s been a pleasant evening, playing in the boat amid blue skies and sunshine, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting an on-deck insight into the workings of the Berwick RNLI lifeboat and its crew while absorbing some striking views of the town from a new angle.
I’m not sure it would have been quite as much fun in the cold, wet and dark though. And that’s what these people face - when their pagers go they get themselves to the station, pull on their kit and climb aboard the boat with little regard for themselves or the conditions - their only concern is helping somebody who may be in trouble.
They dedicate hours upon hours to learning theories and procedures, practising rescue missions and recoveries, and heading out to sea to face any situation that may be thrown at them.
In his forward for a book on the history of the Berwick Lifeboat “a helper of many”, published in the early 1990s, Bewley Bainbridge, former Honorary Secretary of the Berwick Lifeboat Committee, writes: “...we must pay tribute to these brave men who are all volunteers ever ready to exchange their leisure, comfort and sleep for the cold, wet and fatigue in a range of situations to test their skill, nerve and strength at any time of the year, day or night and in all kinds of weather.”
And he’s right. As Kim points out, going out with the Berwick RNLI Lifeboat crew puts things in perspective - and makes the urban concept that the AA is the fourth emergency service simply laughable.