Born at sea: The babies who arrive on lifeboats

The RNLI Oban rescue vessel doesn't just save lives. For some families, it’s where a new life begins.

Born at sea: The babies who arrive on lifeboats

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Little Van Harris Wilson sailed into this world surrounded by yellow wellies and the smell of marine diesel. Fortunately when this happened in August 2009, some 7 years ago, the volunteer crew of RNLI Oban were no strangers to the needs of newborn infants - they’d already helped with the birth of three babies onboard their lifeboat.

David Isaac was Deputy Second Coxswain of the Oban lifeboat when Van Harris was born. He said: ‘It was quite a night. When we left Mull we had nine onboard and we ended up with ten! We updated the Coastguard as we crossed the bay that we were plus one.’

What's with all the babies?

As many mums and dads will confirm, infants don’t always arrive when planned - and not always during ferry hours. So for families on the remote Island of Mull, the volunteers onboard Oban’s Trent class lifeboat Mora Edith MacDonald provide a vital link to the mainland’s Lorn and Islands Hospital.

This emergency service was called on in September 2001, when baby Kerrie Hazel McGillivray was born to mum Fiona and dad James; and again in October 2005, when baby Emma sprung an early meeting on parents Glenn Cato and Rachel Holliday.

Oban Lifeboat Crew Member DM Matheson was present for the births of both Emma and Van Harris, and is a father himself.

He says: ‘Not only have we had four babies born on the lifeboat altogether, we’ve had somewhere between 15 and 20 near misses. The ferry stops running between 8pm and 8am, so they’ve all been night-time incidents.

‘It’s not ideal to have a baby on a lifeboat, as it’s not a medical theatre. So if we know it’s a pregnant woman we’re ferrying to the mainland, we request to have a midwife come with us.’

All grown up

Hazel Banner was the first of Oban’s four lifeboat babies, born in August 1997. At the age of 18, she returned to visit the lifeboat crew who’d taken her mum, Jane, to the mainland during her labour. Former Coxswain Douglas Craig presented Hazel with a ceremonial ship’s bell in a nod to a naval tradition.

At the reunion, Jane said: ‘I was part way through my labour on Mull when it was decided that I should be transported to hospital on the mainland. It being the early hours, there was no ferry and I was met by the midwife and the lifeboat, and when we reached Oban we moored at the pier.

‘Hazel's birth certificate gives Oban Pier as her place of birth … It was 9.01am when I gave birth, with my husband supporting me at one end and the midwife at the other. It was quite small in the lifeboat, so I can see why the crew kept going up on deck for air.’

Supporters for life

Ronnie MacKillop was Coxswain of the lifeboat the night Rachel Holliday went into labour, 11 days before her due date. Shortly afterwards, he recalled: ‘Things were pretty emotional on the lifeboat - with fully grown lifeboat men close to tears. It’s a lesson in how to turn tough men soft.’

But when the big moment is over, what happens to the families who’ve forged such a special connection with the lifeboat and its volunteer crew?

Shortly after the birth of Van Harris, mum Junelle Wilson invited Oban Deputy Coxswain David Isaac and Crew Member DM Matheson to her son’s christening. A year later, in summer 2010, she raised almost £700 for the Oban crew by collecting sponsorship for a half marathon run, and every year she sends the volunteers a bottle of whisky.

While Hazel was the first of the Oban lifeboat babies to turn 18, Van Harris was the first to receive his lifeboat bell. He was presented with his 16 years early, at the age of 2, before his family moved to Australia - just in case he never returned to Scotland.

Hazel, 19 at the time of writing (and planning to go to university to study Criminology), still supports the RNLI. Speaking last year, she said: ‘I have always been aware of where I was born and I have always liked the sea. I am a member of the RNLI and the family does fundraising for them at coffee mornings and other things.’