The ‘Sir John Fisher’: a trip in a lifeboat from Workington to Whitehaven

 

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The Sir John Fisher, waiting to enter the water at Workington

“Ann? Come and stand here.”

You don’t argue with John Stobbart, Coxwain of the Sir John Fisher. He’s a tall, imposing man with a gruff voice, and he’s standing at the wheel of Workington’s lifeboat – which is currently suspended over the sea. It’s the Solway’s only All-Weather Lifeboat (ALB) and is the only one of the UK’s ALBs to be launched in this way, slung from a davit. Minutes earlier I’d watched as it was hoisted from its tracks and lifted sideways, out over the water. The boat was lowered, bringing the deck level with the quay, and I and the crew stepped aboard.

I stand by the aft hatch, out of the way, watching the business of getting the boat ready for sea.

Then John orders me to stand next to him.

“You’re going to steer,” he says.

***

I’d been gathering information about the Solway’s lifeboats and coastguards, to write a longer article for Solway Shore Stories about how the Firth’s waters are protected, and just a few days previously I’d contacted John Stobbart to ask if I could come and talk to him about the RNLI’s Workington boats. He phoned back to ask if I was free to join them for a trip down to Whitehaven: an offer I certainly wasn’t going to refuse!

My plan had been to glean as much information as possible about the activities of  the two boats, in the wider context of the Firth’s protection – but what I learnt instead is part of the Sir John Fisher’s swan-song.

She (or should a boat named after a male donor be gender-neutral?) has been in service for 24 years and, as one of the few remaining Tyne-class ALBs, will be retired from the RNLI’s fleet next year. This, then, was a trip to launch the appeal for funding for her replacement, a new Shannon-class ALB.

***

One of the crew found me the appropriate gear – the smallest wader-and-boots combination in the store. There were straps to deal with, then a yellow waterproof jacket and a lifejacket.

I was given a helmet with a visor so I could “get the feel of it”. Michael Cowling (Second Mechanic) showed me the red tube down which I could blow to inflate the inside of the helmet against my head to hold it in position.

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Helmets

(Mechanics, incidentally, don’t wear lifejackets below deck – presumably so they can crawl into tiny spaces by the engines.)

I stepped aboard, tried to keep out of the way.

The boat was being lowered the final few metres into the water.

 

And,“You’re going to steer,” John Stobbart says.

“As soon as you see we’re in the water – we’re in it now – you’re going to go astern …. These two handles—” he takes my right hand, “pull them back towards you, see here where it says ‘Astern’. Keep the wheel where it is, see, here at zero.” Next to the wheel is a metal plate marked in degrees, zero at the bottom, increasing in steps of 10o in both directions.

The boat inches backwards out of the slings.

I can’t see clearly because my helmet keeps slipping down over my eyes.

“Now, you’re going to turn, and follow the other boat out.” I have to push both throttle levers forward, gently, turn the wheel hard round to the right – and the bow swings to starboard and we circle to point out towards the sea. The ‘other boat’ is Workington’s inflatable Class D Inshore Lifeboat (ILB), the John F Mortimer, with a crew of three. It’s light and manoeuvrable, and ALB crew member Stephen Mcallister tells me, “We use it for recovering persons stranded on rocks, because it can go in shallow water. We can even beach it if we have to.”

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ILB John F Mortimer

“Follow the other boat.” Out through the mouth of the Derwent estuary, between the piled boulders of the sea-defences on the left, and North Bank on the right. The boat veers towards the sandbank.

“You’re too busy talking, Ann, you need to turn 10 degrees to the left.”

I stop my nervous chatter. I need to get used to the slight delay in the boat’s response. The Solway is flat and grey, the wind-turbines are motionless – what must it be like to steer this boat, to make intricate manoeuvres near a broken boat, a person in the water, in huge seas?

We’re out into the channel. “Now, push the levers as far ahead as you can, both together.” Our speed increases dramatically, the bow lifts, and I can’t see what’s ahead.  John clicks down the two switches to the left of the wheel, which activate two hydraulically-operated plates at the keel to change the trim (there’s a photo elsewhere on this blog) and the bow drops: visibility restored.

“See that yacht there? Head inside it. Keep to the left.”

And so I steer this sturdy lifeboat, in its smart blue, red and yellow livery, on a slightly nervous and wavering course along the coast, South towards Whitehaven.

There isn’t time to enjoy the new perspective of the coast. I snatch a quick glance astern at our widening wake. The ILB is dashing around us, bumping through the wake and out into the Firth. Members of the crew are standing around on deck or busy in the cabin; Gary McKeating is taking photographs (I see later that my smile looks more like a rictus of fear).

After about ten astonishing minutes (I really am ‘driving’ a lifeboat!) John reclaims the wheel so that I can go below to see what is happening in the cabin. I’m allowed to take off the helmet.

***

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The main cabin

Steven Wood, today’s navigator, is immediately welcoming and starts to explain what he is doing. He shows me the on-screen chart, and our position. Using that nearby yacht as an example, he explains how he can mark the position of whatever needs rescuing; the computer then draws a line between the lifeboat and the object, and the measurements of the bearing and distance come up on screen.

 

There’s a smaller back-up screen, “And if all else fails, there’s always the chart,” he smiles, lifting manuals to show the laminated one on the desk.

“We can calculate the time from this manual if we know the wind speed and the direction of the tide.” Diagrams show the vector based on tide and wind.
“And we’re transmitting all this information to the coastguard at Belfast to keep them in the picture.”

“But that’s mainly for when we’re further out at sea. Close in, we use our own knowledge, we’re all locals.” Steven points to the outlines of a sandbank on the digital display.  “The tide can be running in on the outer side, but the current on this side might be in the opposite direction.” Long-standing local knowledge is vital in the tricky Firth.

Ryan Lawson is sitting further forward, in front of the radar screen. He’s the youngest of the volunteer crew, at 20 years, and joined two years ago. When I ask him what made him join up, he smiles and shrugs. “It’s in the family. My Dad’s here, he’s on the crew.” Is it difficult to get away from work? “I work in a garage, so it usually works out ok.”

Later, the Operations Manager Tim Chittenden tells me that there are currently 25 volunteers (the Mechanic is employed by the RNLI). “We had a patch a couple of years ago when we were a little bit low on numbers, but we’re just training up three very good new recruits. The crew are from all backgrounds – there’s John, of course, who has his own construction business, there’s an engine driver, a cage-fighter who’s an expert in martial arts, a plasterer, and of course quite a few from Sellafield.”

When there’s a ‘shout’, they’re contacted by their pagers, and Steven tells me that a minimum of six crew are needed to man the boat. Four of the crew are trained as mechanics, and most of the crew are trained to do the other jobs – this morning Ryan has been having further training on the radar. There are seven seats in the main cabin, a few for specific occupations. “When there’s a call-out, the crew come in and sit down. The seats at the front are the best, everyone likes that one [by the radar]. No-one likes this seat!”

We climb through into the small forward cabin, one of the ‘recovery rooms’ (there’s another one at the stern). There’s a folding bench along one wall; a small sink and kettle; boxes with flares, a spare anchor chain; boxes with spare parts for the boat and one labelled ‘hot cans’; a panel with fuses and relays for the engines. The toilet, a chemical loo, is an unscreened box with a lid: I don’t bother to investigate.

An open hatch leads forward to an even smaller compartment where the anchors are stored; there’s another hatch in the roof leading to the deck. If these hatches, and the one to the main cabin, are closed the compartment is completely watertight. “The boat can still float with several compartments flooded,” Steven says. “And as long as one engine still works we’re ok.”

I try to imagine what it would be like in here, in stormy seas. Steven pokes the ceiling: “The ceiling’s got polystyrene padding so your head gets some protection!”  Here at the bow, the cabin would be crashing up and down, it would be noisy from the waves and from the engines. You could get very sea-sick, I suggest. Steven laughs. “But you’d think it was better than where you’d come from!”And as Tim says later, “It’s better than being dead!”

We’re now approaching Whitehaven and John is pulling a strange outfit from a bag. There’s a deal of banter as he climbs into the giant ‘Stormy Stan’ costume that has already been used in previous fund-raising events; he can only see through the netting at Stan’s mouth by tipping Stan’s head backwards to apparently admire the sky.

The port authority comes on the radio noting our arrival. Men and boys are fishing from the quays; people gather to laugh and take photos; Stan waves his huge gloved hands as he steers, and booms out “hallo!”

The eight swans paddling in the marina show no interest at all.

The ILB putters in and moors behind us on the pontoon.

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The start of the Shannon Appeal: Anne Thomas, Judith Hodgson, Robert McLaughlin & Wayne Fox

There is a gazebo on the quay, a photographer and reporter, and a group of smiling on-shore volunteers – and the  ‘Shannon Lifeboat Appeal’ is launched in conjunction with the help of The Times and Star.

‘Stormy Stan’ waves and shouts.

***

 

Tim Chittenden, wearing a pale blue shirt with the RNLI logo, comes down to the boat and introduces himself. Tall, fluent and with a quietly humorous manner, he was a marine engineer, and eventually a rear-admiral, in the Royal Navy. He tells me he then worked at Barrow for five years before retiring and moving to West Cumbria. Then, four years ago,“John [Stobbart] approached me to see if I’d like to get involved and pretty soon I was hooked!” He mimes holding a fishing rod and reeling in the line.

He is now the Workington RNLI’s Operations Manager, responsible for the day-to-day running of the station, and the launching of the lifeboats.

“The boats from Silloth and St Bees’,” he explains, “can go out in up to a Force 7 or 8. But this boat can take up to a Force 10. We can cover an area all the way up from Ravenglass to Port Carlisle, across to the Isle of Whithorn and half-way to the Isle of Man.”

We talk about the design of the new Shannon class ALB, due to arrive at Workington next year. It’s faster – it can travel at over 25 knots as compared with the Sir John Fisher’s 15kn.

Designed in-house by the RNLI, its fibre-reinforced plastic hull has a specially developed new shape to reduce the impact of crashing into waves and, propelled by twin water-jets (like the highly-manoeuvrable boats that service the windfarm) it can move in any direction, even laterally, fast.

All six crew will be seated, and each seat will have screen showing the Systems Integration and Management System (SIMS) which, according to the RNLI, “provides access to all communications (VHF, DF, intercom), navigation (radar, chart, DGPS, depth and speed) and machinery monitoring including engines, transmission, fuel and bilge.” This means that information about any of the systems can be transferred to any of the crew.

Later, on the quay, Bob McLaughlin tells me about the seats with great glee. I’m very pleased to meet Bob again; we last met, by chance, about a year ago when one of the Tyne-class boats was being lifted from the sea at Whitehaven, when he took great delight in showing me all kinds of different design features of the boat’s hull.

He’s been with Workington RNLI in a variety of roles since 1962, is currently the Chairman of the Management Committee, and has just been awarded the RNLI’s highest honour, Honorary Life Governor of the Institution.

The hydraulic seats have also been carefully designed, Bob tells me, laughing. There are collars and adjustments, so that anybody can adjust the amount of rise and fall to fit their weight. Images of yo-yos come to mind.

But the speed and comfort are important. Tim emphasises the benefits: “It will have the great advantage that the crew will arrive in good shape, they won’t have been knocked around, they’ll be in the best possible condition for the rescue. And they’ll be safer, so it’s better for the RNLI.” And of course, the boat will reach the people needing to be rescued and get them back to shore more quickly.

As for the future of the Sir John Fisher: next year the crew will go down to RNLI HQ at Poole to train on the new Shannon and to do sea-trials. Then the new boat and a ‘spare’ plus some professional staff will come to Workington for a week and help with the training here. The crew each have to take an exam at the end. “When the RNLI decide we know what we’re doing,” Tim says, “they’ll take away the old boat and the ‘spare’.”

While we stand talking, people stop by the gazebo to find out about the Shannon Appeal. They’re invited to come aboard the Sir John Fisher, and to look at the ILB. There are Shannon mugs for sale.

The appeal has been launched here in Whitehaven because it will be more visible in this popular location, for one problem with the lifeboat station at Workington is that it’s almost invisible: the port is on the outskirts, and not open to the public (in comparison with St Bees’ and Silloth where dozens of people walk past the boathouses all the time). As Second Coxwain Stephen McAllister says to me, “Don’t get me wrong, we like Whitehaven – but we’re from Workington.” And of course that’s where they’d most like to be seen and supported. But by taking a display stand (with Stormy Stan) at local carnivals and other events, “We try to raise the profile for the station.”

The crew pose for a photo and then strip off their yellow suits and head off into town. Alayne Cowling, the mechanic’s mother and one of the onshore fund-raising volunteers, later tells me that the pub donated £20 to the fund.

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Whitehaven Marina, June 18th 2016 (Thanks to Mark Regan, for this photo)

(Mark Regan : https://www.facebook.com/TheRegsyphotography/)

Crew, from L to R: Joe Birkett, Ryan Lawson, Michael Cowling (2nd mechanic), Stephen Mcallister (2nd Coxswain), John Stobbart (Coxwain), Pat Carr, Steven Howard (ILB helmsman), Lee Moore, Steven Wood

Front row (in RNLI blue shirts and ties): Robert McLaughlin (Station Chariman), Tim Chittenden (Lifeboat Operations Manager), Wayne Fox (treasurer)

***

The Shannon Lifeboat Appeal (supported by Sellafield Ltd and the Times and Star)

Details from the RNLI website:

‘The total cost of Workington RNLI’s Shannon class lifeboat is £2Million. It will be part-funded as follows:

  • By a generous legacy in excess of £1Million from the late Mrs Dorothy May White. Dorothy, a long-time supporter of the RNLI, came from Birmingham and died in February 2012. Workington RNLI’s Shannon will be named Dorothy May White in her memory.
  • A donation of £500,000 from The Sir John Fisher Foundation. The Sir John Fisher Foundation is a charitable trust established in 1980 by Sir John and Lady Maria Fisher. The Foundation’s objective is to distribute its income to charitable causes throughout the UK, but with special regard to those based in and working for the benefit of people living in and around Barrow-in-Furness and surrounding area.
  • From accrued donations from numerous RNLI supporters (the Workington Shannon was also the recipient of the RNLI’s Summer Appeal mailing).

The RNLI looks forward to the appeal raising the remaining £150,000.’

 

How to donate:

Directly online via Just Giving

Or text RNLI WORKINGTON to 70300 and donate £5

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