Gazette reporter Tony Gussin joins the crew for a night time exercise and finds out more about the work of these extraordinary volunteer lifesavers, the latest fund raising appeal and plans for the Ilfracombe lifeboat station.
ILFRACOMBE’S RNLI lifeboat has been at the heart of the community for 185 years and as the appeal for a new launch and recovery vehicle reaches the halfway milestone, it seems support for the charity is as strong as ever.
Local RNLI volunteers, with staunch public support, have almost half the £150,000 target towards the custom vehicle that will launch the new state-of-the-art Shannon class lifeboat arriving in the town in 2015.
Battered by Atlantic storms and set on the craggy north coast, unsurprisingly Ilfracombe tends to be one of the busier RNLI stations – in 2012 the lifeboat launched 65 times, assisted 62 people and spent 793 hours at sea. Of those call outs, 17 were in the dark.
The crew may be the visible face of Ilfracombe RNLI, but equally important are the volunteers who turn out around the clock to launch the lifeboat, plus those who carry out the many admin functions and a small army of dedicated fund raisers.
North Devon Gazette reporter Tony Gussin joined the volunteer crew on Thursday for a night time exercise and to speak to those whose spare time is dedicated to saving lives.
“The crew were great – it was impressive how easily they went about their duties with a calm efficiency, but with plenty of humour too,” said Tony.
“It is amazing to think they are all charity volunteers, with day jobs and normal lives, yet at a moment’s notice can be called upon to put to sea in deadly conditions to carry out extremely hazardous rescue operations.
“I own a boat, although I make no claims to being an expert, but the biggest thing that struck me was how different it is being at sea at night. The land is barely visible, apart from a few lights and with the darkness all around, it seems very enclosed – but you have to remember the hazards are still out there.
“The current Mersey class all weather lifeboat Spirit of Derbyshire steamed down to Combe Martin Bay for the first order of business – anchor drill.”
A lifeboat may not spend a great deal of time at anchor, but in an emergency such as engine failure, every boat needs one so the crew set to work testing all the components from the anchor through to its winch.
Probationary crew member Jonathon Edwards, then had the experience of firing his first parachute flare, while nearby the inshore lifeboat Deborah Brown – also on manoeuvres – did the same, but not before warning Swansea Coastguard, of course.
Jonathon, aged 20, has been with the RNLI for almost a year and is following in a family tradition, as his father Robert is already on the crew.
“I like helping people,” he said, “I was a charity worker at the time I joined, but couldn’t find a job so wanted to use my free time to actually help somebody.
“Ilfracombe RNLI is respected throughout the town and the town does a lot for the RNLI. We get a lot of supporters come down to the lifeboat station and it’s good to see that community spirit.”
Back in Combe Martin Bay, a sudden shout from the wheelhouse was the first sign that something was amiss – crew member Mark weeks had fallen and was in incredible pain. Everything else was secondary as the casualty was assessed and given prompt first aid.
It was another drill, but it also showed how the RNLI constantly practises for any eventuality they might encounter at sea.
Then it was Tony’s turn to drive the boat back to shore: “It was a little unnerving at first, given that I had been entrusted to drive a powerful lifeboat between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe in the pitch black, but mechanic and the night’s coxswain Leigh Hanks was a great help. I was happy to hand the helm back to him before the final docking back at the harbour, however!”
Back ashore, volunteer lifeboat operations manager Chris Wallis talked about the plans for extending the lifeboat house to accommodate the new Shannon and its launcher.
A planning application has been submitted and it is proposed to extend the front of the building by some five metres, creating a glass frontage. Inside, extensive remodelling will create larger changing areas and mechanics workshop.
Chris, who served on the crew for 11 years before joining the management team, said it was hoped the building work could start in the autumn, for completion before the Shannon arrives next year.
“We get amazing support, not just from Ilfracombe but the surrounding communities too,” he said.
“I think Ilfracombe lifeboat station is an essential part of the community and incredibly important down here on the harbour.”
Donations to the launcher appeal can be left at or sent to Ilfracombe Lifeboat House, 14 Broad Street, Ilfracombe, EX34 8EE. Cheques can be made payable to ’Ilfracombe RNLI’.