Every day around our coast fishermen take to sea, sometimes with a crew, other times single handed. Sadly, the current rules and regulations are forcing many to take risks to earn a living by going to sea in inclement weather, and many feel they have no choice but to go out to work in conditions that they once would have considered extremely unsafe.
Thankfully, there are people – both staff and volunteers – who are committed to ending preventable loss of life at sea; the men and women of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). In 2014 alone, the RNLI’s lifeboat crews and lifeguards went to the rescue of over 10,000 people. It is the RNLI and MCA who respond when a vessel gets into trouble, and every time a lifeboat is launched or a search and recuse (SAR) helicopter takes to the air, the crews must be prepared to cope with a multitude of challenging and dangerous situations, which is why exercises are so important. Mainly volunteers, these lifeboat crew often fit their training around full-time jobs, and are on-call 24/7. Recently we joined Shoreham Harbour Lifeboat on several exercises to see first-hand how crews prepare for such an incident.
Technology is constantly advancing, and the Shoreham Tamar All Weather Lifeboat Enid Collett is kitted out with state-of-the-art equipment. It is a proven and fast boat travelling with 2000hp engines up to a speed of 25 knots. Launching from the boathouse, Coxswain Steve Smith positioned her several miles off the Shoreham coast. While we waited for the helicopter to arrive, Smith told us how and why radio procedure is so important when working with helicopters and a casualty: “Valuable time can be saved by following procedure and, if a vessel is lost, sectored searches take place to locate those in the water.”
Paul Fisher from the RNLI Operations Department explained the use of radios in more detail: “It is so important that crews are trained how to transmit, while being constructive with their comments to all involved – especially the casualty, who may well be in a situation where they need support to reassure them that all is fine and help is at hand. Radio comms between lifeboat and casualty are important but not always possible. It can help to guide the lifeboat to the casualty and inform the lifeboat crew of any possible hazards around them such as fishing nets or lines still in the water.”
Safety is of the utmost importance for all involved, and the relevant protective gear is now standard. It was calm tonight! However, it puts things into a different perspective when we are out in a force +9. That is why we do these exercises to the book
All Weather Lifeboats (ALBs) and Atlantic 85 lifeboats all have VHF and 121.5MHz direction-finding radio fitted. The usual working channel is 16: the international distress and calling channel on 156.8MHz. Channel 0 is HM Coastguard’s private channel and their consent must be gained prior to publishing the frequency.
“It is normally the mechanic who is the radio operator on the ALB Lifeboat,” Paul explained. “However, the majority of crew are radio trained. The RNLI takes crew training very seriously and their training centre at Poole provides support, along with their mobile units that visit lifeboat stations.”
Standard international radio voice procedures are used in all communications, but there can be situations when those being rescued do not know these, or don’t even have a working radio on board. Mobile phones are not the most proven means of communication and are easily lost in an emergency situation, so should never be relied on.
The RNLI advises all fishermen (and recreational sailors) to undertake one of the available courses that will train them in what to do if disaster strikes, and how to follow the procedures set out by the RNLI to make their rescue swifter and safer.
It was not long before H104 – an AgustaWestland AW139, a twin-engine helicopter popular with coastguard agencies globally – appeared, having taken off from Lee on Solent. “We really have to make the most of these exercises because they aren’t a regular occurrence.” said Coxswain Smith. “Lee is currently the busiest Maritime SAR helicopter in the UK and it isn’t uncommon for exercises to be cancelled at the last minute due to a shout.”
Mark Blatcher, the Shoreham Lifeboat Mechanic, works with Second Cox Simon Tugwell to get those onboard involved in the exercise, which can include several incidents. “Our training now is with the aim of getting as many crew members acceptable for the All Weather Lifeboat,” Bletcher explained. “With an inshore lifeboat we are a busy station, especially in the summer. First-hand opportunities such as this must be taken.”
The helicopter arrived out of the dark and positioned itself very low over the Tamar, dropping its winchman onto the deck. A brief discussion relating to the exercise was agreed, and the first crew member was winched up. This was followed by a medi-vac in a stretcher, then a search for a casualty in the water.
While all this was happening, Smith was at the helm keeping a steady track at a fast speed, with the helicopter to the stern, while in constant radio communication with the pilot. “Safety is of the utmost importance for all involved, and the relevant protective gear is now standard. It was calm tonight! However, it puts things into a different perspective when we are out in a force +9. That is why we do these exercises to the book,” he told us.
Exercises over, and Enid Collett was returned to the boathouse. A crew briefing and the all-important “thank you” to the helicopter crew was followed by a wash-down of the lifeboat, fuel checks and a reassuring, “We are now ready for service,” to the Coastguard.
Our fishermen, often at sea when others are not, need to know that these services are there to help them when needed. The national press does at times have to report the sad outcome of incidents; but seeing first-hand how The RNLI and MCA work together it proves how important such joint exercises are.
Our thanks go to Steve Smith and the crews at Shoreham Harbour Lifeboat for their continued support, and to the MCA Media team at Southampton.
If you would like to find out more about the work of the RNLI, or to donate, please visit rnli.org