SAVING lives can be extraordinary but for lifeboat crews it’s just part of the job – well, as much as a voluntary commitment can be considered a job. The thrill Portpatrick crew members get from being on the boat and part of the RNLI makes up for losing any spare time.
There is no need to look for volunteers to be plucked from the Irish Sea while on exercise off the Rhins coast – crew members queue up for the privilege.
Coxswain Rob McQueen has been part of the RNLI for about 40 years at various stations.
“The coxswain is effectively the manager,” Rob said. “Ultimately I’m responsible for launching the boat and the safety of everyone on board.
“There are only two full-time members at Portpatrick though so most of the time it’s just a case of doing whatever needs done. That means paperwork and all the other exciting stuff too.”
It is the job of mechanic Ally Cerexhe to make sure the £2.7million Tamar class John Buchanan Barr works in peak condition at a moment’s notice.
“We got about a week of training on the lifeboat and then it was ‘here you go’, go and play,” he said. “A lot of my job is performing routine maintenance on parts and repairing anything that needs it.
“However, Rob and I are interchangeable. I can take charge of the boat if he’s unavailable and he is also trained as a mechanic.”
Ally moved to the area about 25 years ago and had no experience of boats.
“I just became friends with the crew and got into it that way,” he recalls. “We are a good group of guys. The lifeboat is there to protect everybody, you never know when it might be needed. It’s a good way to give something back to the community.”
The Portpatrick station does not just cover the Rhins coast – calls can be anywhere from Luce Bay to Troon, down to the Isle of Man and across to Northern Ireland, meaning they are responsible for the ferry routes.
Last year they were called out 16 times, however, there is no telling how far apart they will come. Every volunteer needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to launch the boat.
“We can be out of the harbour in five minutes from receiving a shout,” said Ally. “Our boat needs a crew of seven, and it’s basically just the first that show up.
“You need to have a qualified coxswain and mechanic but other than that it’s the first to arrive. We all carry pagers and as soon as they go off you drop what you’re doing and get down to the shed.
“In the past I’ve been sitting down to a meal at a restaurant, just with a steak arriving, and then had to run out the door. You
never know how serious it is going to be so the reaction is always the same.
“The worst I have ever been out was when the P&O ferry grounded. That was 100 mile-an-hour-hour gales and a 13-hour shift.”
As soon as they launch, it’s down to business, all joking banter stops and the boat is prepared. Rob surveys the activity from the wheel before easing it out of the harbour. Once in open sea, the speed is cranked up.
Travelling at 25 knots, or 29 miles per hour, may not seem like much on the A75 but a firm grip is needed at that speed on the Irish Sea.
Below deck radar, radio and navigation charts are available at a touch of a button.
Alick Rintoul said: “It’s all very space age, a lot more advanced than our old boat at the end of its life.”
Portpatrick received its new lifeboat, the John Buchanan Barr, four years ago following a £2million donation.
Alick said: “John Buchanan Barr was a doctor who enjoyed his holidays at Portpatrick with his wife. He loved it here. When we were told about the donation it came as a total shock. He wasn’t someone we knew or who visited us.
“When he died he left money in his will specifically for a new lifeboat for us – it was only right that it was named after him.”
Back above deck the crew are taking it in turns to dive into the Irish Sea to be rescued and others practice manoeuvring up to people in the water.
Some of the hazards will be obvious, others are somewhat more surprising.
“That bit of white you see under the surface,” Rob said pointing. “That will be a 5p plastic bag or a bit of rubbish. When that gets caught by a boat the engine can overheat in a second – it happens that fast.
“From going along fine you can be dead in the water and needing the lifeboat. It can happen to experienced sailors too.
“It’s frustrating because that is what most of our calls are for. From a 5p bag we could end up spending £500,000 in fuel.”
Crew member Marc Trafford has just been hauled back up to the deck from the Irish Sea. Shouting over the noise of the engine, and dripping wet, he told Our Wigtownshire how essential it was to reach those in trouble quickly.
“In the suits we wear we can go in the water on a nice summer day and it isn’t too cold,” he said. “If you were in there with just your clothes on though you would really feel it.”
Charlie Reynolds is next to dive in. He laughs when he’s told the boat will be travelling at 20 knots when he goes overboard.
With two hands on the rail he leans back and then is gone – his head briefly pops up above water in time for him to catch his breath before it is smothered with surf.
Rob said: “These exercises are all about making sure we are ready for every possible situation. We will practice drills to make sure every crew member is comfortable doing every job.
“A lot of it comes with experience though, like knowing not to tow a boat while facing the sun.”
After nearly an hour at sea it is time to get back to the station – there is a barbecue waiting – and the wait begins for the next buzz of the pager.
First published spring 2015.
Pictures: Peter Robinson