AS SOMEONE with a fairly large fear of the water, I was a little apprehensive when I arrived to take part on a training morning with the RNLI crew at Minehead.
As I entered the small room adjacent to where the two boats are stored at the Harbourside, I was greeted by smiling faces and made to feel like one of the crew within moments.
The loyalty and dedication of the volunteers is obvious to any spectator.
While only having to attend one training exercise a month, many of the volunteers I spoke to said they tried to come along every Sunday, not just for the practise it would seem but because of the friendship too.
In a job where in a worst case scenario you could be dealing with fatalities, it is important to keep a smile on your face and focused, and the crew seem to have a knack at doing just that, strengthened by their different levels of experience.
And for just over a year and a half, more women have been on board.
The sun was shining, the sea was calm (much to the disappointment of the volunteers), and I was togged up in £1000 worth of special kit ready for my adventure.
I WAS gripping on for dear life as we launched the Atlantic 85. Photo: Chris Rundle.
James Whittaker has been a volunteer with the Minehead RNLI for just over two years.
He said: “I own my own outdoor education company and so, as a result, I’ve spent a lot of time out sailing and it just struck me one day about the work these guys do and I really wanted to give something back.”
Despite running his own company and being a father of three, (he has another daughter due next month as well), James makes sure to attend as many of the exercises as possible.
He added: “We have to attend at least once a month and then we have two night time training exercises a month as well which is really good practise.
“It’s really important to try and come more than once a month though because even just after two weeks away your standards slip and it can be hard to get back into the routine.”
There are currently 20 crew members at the Minehead RNLI station.
Many have been there for years, with a few older members returning following the age limit for volunteers increasing.
Three females are also now part of the crew, a new edition following a recruitment drive in 2012.
Phil Horne, who has been a crew member for ten years, explained:“We have had female members in the past but it is really hard work. “
It’s nothing to do with sexism and the female members we’ve got are all great, they all join in with the banter; but some just struggle with the work which is a real shame.”
It’s easy to understand where Phil is coming from. I had a go at rescuing a ‘man overboard’ which requires literally dragging someone in to the boat while trying to stay in yourself and while it was only an inflated lifejacket I was ‘saving’ it took all the sheer strength I had to get it in.
And the muscles in my arms and neck were still aching the next day!
James explained to me how difficult a rescue was on the water, especially in wild weather conditions.
“When the sea is rough and its spraying up in your face and the rain is pouring, it is so easy to lose sight of the person or the boat.
“It’s not like on the ground where if someone falls over they stay there, the sea is always moving and in the dark you really need to have your wits about you.”
It’s not only physical strength that’s required, mental strength is equally as important.
Phil has had to rescue three dead bodies over the years.
“Although I’ve been doing this job for ten years, every time we go out in the boats, be it for a training exercise or on a call, each time it’s different and each time you learn something new.
“Out on the sea, conditions are constantly changing and you have to adapt to that.
“Not just the sea itself but factors like the weather; you’re up against a lot.
“It’s a challenge but it’s also fun too and so rewarding.”
Occasionally too the crew have to get into the water to rescue someone.
And as the sea was calm I was shown how to get back into the boat and even got to have a swim through a cave, with the help of the other crew members.
While I got to experience more than most people on their first trip out on the boats, there is usually at least six months worth of training potential volunteers have to go through.
As well as showing their face as much as possible, first aid courses, training in handling the boats and chart reading as well as a physical assessment are required before you can even been considered as a volunteer.
THE Atlantic 85 has to be launched using a special waterproofed tractor because of the steep pebble beach. Photo: Chris Rundle.
Raji Webber joined up after seeing an advertisement in the paper in 2012.
One of three female crew members she has made sure to get stuck in and doesn’t take any rubbish from the boys.
She said: “I love the challenge and doing something new.
“There’s so much support and encouragement from everyone.
“We get to go to Poole for a week to go to college and learn more skills such as sea survival and safety repair work, it’s intense but a lot of fun.
“We aim to respond to a call from the coastguard within seven minutes and while it doesn’t always mean going out on the boats, it’s good for as many of us to be here as possible to help with launching the boats, there’s more to it than just the rescue.”
Raji has also had a large involvement with the fundraising.
Last year, Minehead’s RNLI had to take on the responsibility of raising the £32,000 needed to fund things such as the suits for the year.
It’s a challenge but one they’ve risen to well and there’s plenty lined up this year to make sure they reach that goal.
Raji added: “The support of the community is great, there are always people out collecting for us and we couldn’t do our job without them.
“The annual raft race is taking place later this year on August 17 and on February 8 we’re holding our lifeboat dance at the Hobby Horse Ballroom.”
Despite driving home with aching arms, and a lack of feeling in my right thumb from the cold, I couldn’t keep the grin off of my face.
BACK on dry land: ‘Soaking but smiling, I had a great day with the crew.’
The whole experience was truly liberating, especially the swim through a cave (which has inspired me to take part in a swimathon next month).
Anyone with the required dedication and living close by should consider joining, it’s rewarding on so many levels.
- MINEHEAD is one of 237 operational RNLI lifeboat stations around the coast ofthe UK and Ireland. It was built and opened in 1901.
- IT IS equipped with two boats: an Atlantic 85 rigid inflatable and a D class inflatable.
- MINEHEAD lifeboat station covers the coast between Hinkley Point and Lynmouth and receives on average 25 calls a year.
- LIFEBOATMEN are on call 24 hours a day seven days a week and carry pagers at all times.
- THE Atlantic 85 lifeboat is launched using a large waterproofed tractor.
- The D class is launched using a Tooltrak tracked vehicle.
- Crew members include an engineer, a teacher, an optician, a plumber, and a lorry driver.
- The annual cost of running Minehead lifeboat station is around £90,000.