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24 hours on the Thames

Tower Lifeboat Station is the busiest in the UK. To find out exactly what life is like for the crew members that save lives on the capital’s most famous waterway, Writer Catherine Richards spent 24 hours shadowing a shift …

24 hours on the Thames with the RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

And I’m awake.

Suddenly. There’s noise – a ringing. And pounding of feet. I jolt upright and – crack – hit my head on the upper beam of the bunk bed I’d forgotten I was sleeping in. Grappling for the door I see the lofty shadow of Helm Stu Morrison, tugging on a lifejacket.

‘Is this … was that … is this a shout?’ I mumble.

‘You bet it is!’ is the response.

And we’re off. Bleary-eyed I fumble for my drysuit, boots and lifejacket in an attempt to keep up with Crew Members Matt Leat and Dan Gurr – who are already halfway to the lifeboat. I have no idea what time it is. All I know is that this is the eighth shout in 24 hours for Tower lifeboat crew. And I’m struggling to keep up.

It all began for me at around 2pm the day before. It was a dreary, wet Saturday afternoon in April and I’d been tasked to spend the weekend shadowing a shift at the RNLI’s busiest lifeboat station – Tower, which sits next to Waterloo Bridge on Victoria Embankment on the River Thames.

The next few hours pass in a haze of rain and radio traffic. Only 5 minutes after launching the lifeboat on a routine exercise, a call comes into the radio: ‘We have reports of a child in the water … ‘ Within seconds we’re flying across the river in the direction of the call.

Luckily, it was a well-intended false alarm. But I’d had my first taste of the speed of operations on the river, coupled with the calm skill of the crew under pressure – and I was in awe.

‘It’s satisfying when we save a life. It’s the greatest thing you can do,’ says Helm Keith Cima back at the station. ‘Equally, it’s devastating when a life is lost. But the station has to carry on. You just have to remain focused on the task in hand.’

Before I know it my thoughts are interrupted by the cheery arrival of Matt, Stu and Dan – the night shift – who are here to take over. Rather than clocking off the day shift, I stay to enjoy a pasta dinner while Helm Stu Morrison keeps me entertained with tales from his years with the RNLI.

I’m so absorbed in conversation that I almost forget about the drysuit I’m wearing. And about the lifeboat outside.

That’s until just after 9.30pm, when a call from the Coastguard brings everything back into focus. ‘It’s a person in the water,’ Matt says, and I’m on autopilot.

I’m shaking like a leaf as Stu powers the lifeboat downriver. I can’t tell whether it’s the cold or the nerves. Both are overwhelming. We reach the scene of the reported sighting and Matt hands me a searchlight to scour the murky water for any sign of human life.

The events that unfold pass in a blur of urgent action. Seeing the floating, lifeless body. Watching the fire crew haul his waterlogged bulk out of danger. The grey, inert look that shadowed his face. The screaming lights. The sirens. The dash back to the station. The swarm of emergency services congregating on the pier.

Craig’s tireless resuscitation attempt. My utter helplessness just standing by.

Only 30 minutes later, and all is quiet. No sirens, no pumping CPR, no one else around. We’re almost certain that we haven’t been able to save him.

The shock takes a while to subside. Matt reiterates what I’d already heard so many times that day. ‘You have to stay detached from it,’ he urges. ‘It’s the only way to cope.’

The next morning, I’m shattered and groggy. We’d had another shout during the night and I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing a call. Keith and Craig prepare to take over the day shift, this time with Paul Ward, a volunteer crew member and paramedic by trade. This was just an ordinary weekend for the duty crew. But the previous night’s events have only heightened my respect for the work our lifeboat crews do every day.

As we prepare for morning kit checks and another exercise, Keith lets me into a secret. ‘I’m the oldest crew member at the station,’ he explains proudly. ‘And I can safely say that this is the best job I’ve ever had in my life. Everybody here has a direct hand saving lives in what I believe to be the world’s greatest capital city.’

That pride is infectious. My mind drifts back to the incident the night before. We’d been sitting in the crew room, processing the previous shout. Then Stu had rushed in. There was news. ‘Call from the ambulance,’ he exclaimed to the team. ‘They got a pulse.’ It’s just a glimmer of hope. But it’s those small moments of hope that make our Thames crews so invaluable – 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

This piece was originally published in the Summer 2013 issue of Lifeboat magazine. Tower is still our busiest lifeboat station. As for whether Keith’s still the oldest crew member – well, that’s a secret.

Tower lifeboat crew feature in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.