Lifeboat heroes more important than ever

IT has been nearly 200 years since the first lives were saved by the Harwich lifeboat. And today the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) is as important as ever as more of us take to the sea.

James Marston

IT has been nearly 200 years since the first lives were saved by the Harwich lifeboat.

And today the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) is as important as ever as more of us take to the sea. JAMES MARSTON joins the crew of the Albert Brown as they exercise off the coast of Felixstowe.

NO one wants to be in trouble at sea.

Out of our element, the risk to life is ever present if something goes wrong.

But when the unimaginable does happen it is the RNLI that comes to our rescue.

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And here in East Suffolk it is the likely to be the boys from Harwich that come to your aid if the unexpected does happen.

Preparing to launch the Harwich lifeboat, coxswain Paul Smith describes what the RNLI in the Essex town is there for.

He said: “I have worked for the RNLI as a volunteer and as a full-time staff member for 26 years. From Harwich we cover an area from Walton on the Naze up to Aldeburgh across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland and Zeebrugge.

“The area we cover includes the rivers Orwell, Stour and Deben. We are the lifeboat for Felixstowe and that part of the Suffolk coast.

“We cover a wide area and we work closely with other emergency services. We have two boats. An in-shore lifeboat and an off-shore lifeboat.

“We average between 100-120 services shouts (call outs) as we call them per year between the two boats. We are manned by 28 volunteers and two full-time staff including me and a full-time mechanic.

“My job is to co-ordinate the volunteers and take to sea the offshore lifeboat. I am the man in charge on the boat.

“The jobs we get called to can vary from anything to missing persons to ships in collision to medical evacuation and the crew includes trained paramedics.

“We liaise with other emergency services and when you're that far off shore there is often only us and maybe the RAF search and rescue service.”

A former hydrographic surveyor, Paul, 50, has spent much of his life at sea.

He said: “I knew what the lifeboat meant and what it could mean to me. When we go to sea we want the success of saving someone's life.

“We are not always successful but when you know you have made a difference and saved someone's life the feeling is immense, it is a fantastic feeling.”

The Harwich lifeboat station's inshore lifeboat is called Sure and Steadfast. The Atlantic 75 lifeboat B789, was named on May 18, 2003 after the fundraising efforts of The Boys' Brigade.

Sure and Steadfast is a rigid inflatable lifeboat known as a RIB. It has a manually operated self-righting mechanism and is capable of being beached in an emergency without sustaining damage to engines or steering gear. The Atlantic 75 can be operated safely in daylight in a force 6/7 and at night in a force 5/6.

Paul said: “We would send her out up to 15 to 20 miles off shore. Its main working areas are the Stour, Orwell, Felixstowe, Deben and up to the rivers Alde and Ore so it's quite a big area.”

Harwich Lifeboat station is never off-duty and is ready to launch 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.

Paul said: “The launch time is six minutes. That's from the crew being paged to the boat leaving at any time of the night or day.”

The larger Severn Class lifeboat, the Albert Brown, is an impressive machine.

Paul said: “The Severn Class is the largest type of lifeboat the RNLI have. It is manned by a crew of six or seven and has a daughter boat on board so it can launch its own inflatable. It is a very high-tech boat and has the latest navigational and radio equipment.

“The boat has a range of 250 miles at a speed of 25 knots in any weather. Our remit by the RNLI is to be within four hours of a disaster at sea. The boat has a passenger capacity of 183.”

To take such a machine out in what can be dangerous conditions is a big responsibility.

Paul said: “You are never complacent and you are always wary. I know all the wives and the children of the crew and it is my responsibility to bring the crew back with me each time.”

Summer is the busiest time for Harwich lifeboat station.

Paul said: “We are seeing an increase in the numbers of people using the sea for leisure activities. There is a major industry afloat and as a result we are being called more and more.”

The crew are often called to cruise ships to execute medical evacuations.

Leaving Harwich harbour, the Albert Brown on the move draws a crowd keen to watch as the boat makes for the open sea.

On board the boat is immaculately kept.

There are three main decks and Paul steers the boat from the top deck as we leave the harbour.

Beneath is the watertight deck which includes the navigational equipment - including charts, crew seats, and radio equipment - the boat can also be steered from the crew cabin.

Beneath the crew cabin is the 12-seater survivor's cabin which also contains equipment storage, as well as the engine room.

Below decks is the domain of mechanic Andrew Moors.

He said: “The fuel tanks contain five and a half tons of diesel. There are two V12 54 litre Caterpillar engines generating 1,300 horsepower each.”

If capsized the boat self rights itself in eight and a half seconds.

Paul said: “We've not done that. We have been on our side though.”

As we pass Beach End Buoy with Felixstowe's Landguard Fort on our left the engines roar into life.

The sheer power of the lifeboat is evident and we're soon up to 25knots and off the coast of Felixstowe - the RIB in hot pursuit.

Crew member Paul Griffin, 21, said: “I've been at sea for the last few years. I work three weeks on and three weeks off for Trinity House lighthouse service as a coxswain and I wanted something to do in my time off.

“Being part of the crew is exciting. You never know what is going to happen.”

From the equipment in front of him Paul has a number of facts at his disposal including speed, sea depth in fathoms or feet, sea temperature, a compass and wind speed. Out to sea there are a few sailing yachts and a survey vessel as well as the vast container ships preparing to dock at the port of Felixstowe.

Paul describes the visibility as fair.

For 21-year-old Michael Goddard being a crewman is something he grew up wanting to do.

He said: “Being on the lifeboat is something I've always wanted to do since I was a child. I work as a field technician in London testing concrete.

“We've always had boats and when I was younger the lifeboat came out to us.”

For Colin Rotchell, known to the crew by his nickname Chalky, it is time to take part in the exercise of the day - retrieving a man in the sea.

It is Chalky's job to jump in the North Sea and await rescue.

As soon as he is in, the crew point towards his position.

Paul said: “If you can imagine trying to find something the size of a football, basically a person's head, in rough seas it is very difficult.”

After he is retrieved by use of an A frame on the side of the boat Colin describes the experience.

He said: “It is pretty cold in the sea for this time of year. When the boat comes up to you it is huge and you feel very small. It is good exercise for the crew. We know what to do without too much talking and it should be a fluid operation. Everyone knows what to do and you never know when you will need the skills.”

Standing at the back of the boat 68-year-old Bob Ramplin, a security guard, is surveying the scene - he's seen it all before.

Now the deputy lifeboat operations manager, Bob is usually based shore side.

He said: “I've been volunteering for 40 years and have served as a crew member before. It's something that's in your blood that doesn't let you go.”

Have you been helped or rescued by the Harwich lifeboat? What do you think of the work of the RNLI? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or send an e-mail to

After 40 years of working from temporary cabins on Halfpenny Pier an appeal was launched to fund a new boathouse with adequate training facilities for the crew.

After about two years, with extensive funding from local supporters and organisations, construction started on the reclamation of a site at Harwich Navyard.

The building was purpose-built to ensure efficient launching of the inshore lifeboat and a permanent berth with protection from winter storms for the offshore lifeboat.

The new boathouse was completed in 2003 at a cost of £1.25m.

The operational life will be a minimum 75 years and is designed to accept future boats of the ILB class.

The building was designed on the concept of the old method of boatbuilding.

The curved roof resembles the hull of an upturned boat which is how boats were built in the early days.

The RNLI costs £339,000 a day to run.

An all-weather lifeboat jacket costs £385.

Two out of three people in the UK go to the seaside at least once a year.

The RNLI has more than 330 lifeboats at its stations.

The first lifeboat was placed in Harwich in 1821 by the Essex Lifeboat Association.

Harwich lifeboat has been called out nearly 50 times so far in 2008.

The Albert Brown was named after a bequest from the late Victoria Maisie Brown to commemorate her late husband. It cost £2million and was named by Terry Waite on May 25, 1997.