Chris Walker, Tower
Tower Lifeboat Station is home to the RNLI’s busiest crew, but many Londoners don’t even know it exists. The nature of the river and the city means that things are done slightly differently on the Thames, but the RNLI spirit remains the same, as Helm Chris Walker explains.
What’s your role at the RNLI, and how long have you been involved?
I’m a full-time Helm at Tower Lifeboat Station, and I’m also the Casualty Care Trainer for the Thames. I’ve been doing the Thames job for about 5 years, and before that I spent 6½ years at RNLI College in Poole being a lifeboat trainer. But I started with the RNLI as a volunteer at Helensburgh, just north of Glasgow.
What’s the crew at Tower like?
We have around 56 volunteers at the moment, and 10 full timers. It’s like any station, you’ve got everything from binmen to barristers. A lot of our crew come from a London business background, such as bankers, people working in the City. But we have a fair number that are not working in London but they choose Tower because it’s more convenient for them than a coastal station where you’re tied to the pager. At our station, you commit to two shifts per month minimum, and then you can plan when you’re going to be on station, when your life is going to be stopped for a moment, instead of being woken at 2am or called away in the middle of an important meal or anniversary.
So how do your shift patterns work?
Being full-time, I do 12-hour shifts, 4 days on and 4 days off. It could be days or nights. You stay in the station – we have small bunks. And because it’s done in blocks of four, I don’t have to stay in London so I live in Dorset and travel up. I tend to spend my 12 hours off sleeping, wandering around London, kicking around Covent Garden. It’s harder when you’re on day shifts because it’s quite expensive in London and you can’t really go out and have a meal too often. Whereas if you’re on the night shift and there’s another colleague there you can go out to a museum during the day – that’s good fun.
What else do you enjoy about shift working?
It feels like you have more time to focus on the job in hand. You have time to plan what you’re going to do. At a coastal station you have your window for training, and your very small window when you respond to a shout, and it all goes nuts during that period of time and then it’s calm afterwards – people go back to their lives. But at Tower when we’re stuck together for 12 hours at a time it makes it much easier to coordinate your training, to reprepare the boat after a shout, to go through any issues any of the crew has had. You’ve got lots of time to do your paperwork as well. But you can also sit down and have a blether and catch up with people.
What dangers do you encounter on the Thames?
A lot of people might think: ‘The Thames is just a river. How dangerous can it be?’ But when you’ve got over 7m of tide and it can go shooting through there at 4-6 knots, as well as the bridges, piers, commercial vessels and leisure craft you have to deal with ... It’s a very dangerous environment, but in a very different way to the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. They’ve got big rolling waves and hideous storms. We might not have that, but we have different hazards.
Another example is risk to self – from the people we’re called out to, or from the hazmat [hazardous materials] side of things. The river’s a lot cleaner than it’s ever been, but sometimes if you’ve had serious storms and a lot of rain the sewage system can’t cope. We avoid going out training in those conditions where we can. Of course, it wouldn’t stop us going if a shout came in. And decontamination afterwards is important, which is normal anyway on a day-to-day shift but you go to town on it those days.
Why do you do it, and still enjoy it, after all this time?
It’s that sense of belonging, that sense of commonality that we’ve got with the guys on the coast, that we are all the same crew, and part of the same lifeboat family. That’s very evident when we’re out and about at other lifeboat stations. We’re welcomed with open arms. And equally if other stations come to visit us, they’re welcomed with open arms.
What would you say to someone who’s seen Saving Lives at Sea and wants to help?
If you’re willing to give up time and want to do your piece, then do look into volunteering. But remember it’s not just volunteering as crew, which is what you see in all the pictures. It’s the volunteering behind the scenes that a lot of people are not aware of: volunteer press officers, people hosting visits at stations. Fundraisers are the backbone of the RNLI and there are loads of opportunities there. So yes, if you can give up some of your time, every little helps.
And to people in London who weren’t aware that the RNLI has lifeboats in their city?
It’s amazing the number of people who don’t know that we’re there. We’ve been there since 2002, originally down at Tower Pier, hence the name, and then in 2006 we relocated to what used to be the police pier below Waterloo Bridge. But there are thousands and thousands of Londoners who don't know we exist. And I daresay when they see us blatting up the river they think we’re the police – or one of the pleasure rides!
You’ve got two kids: Basil (8) and Ewan (5). What do they think of your job?
They understand, and they're interested in the RNLI. They can sometimes see it as the thing that takes daddy away from home for 4 days, but then I get to be home for 4 days. And they seem to get it. If they say: ‘I don’t want you to go to work, daddy,’ I can say: ‘Why have I got to go to work?’ They know it’s because I’ve got to go and rescue people. And when I’m home it’s full-on daddy duty – picking them up from school, laundry, cooking.
What incidents on the Thames stand out in your mind?
It’s quite hard to pinpoint a specific job. The horrific ones will stand out more. Because of where we are and the nature of the calls that we get, I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to death and suicide and body recovery. But if you recover someone’s body, at least the family can get some closure. So even in the very sad cases, there’s a tiny glimmer of light. Then there are so many feelgood jobs, like when you’ve done CPR on someone and you hear later that they have made a full recovery.
What are the eating arrangements on station?
Crew will bring in stuff for themselves for lunch and dinner. Or if we plan in advance we’ll have a sit-down meal together. And it’s not uncommon for us to do that with other agencies, for example inviting the marine police to come up and share a breakfast with us at the weekend. So we all start shift with a nice wholesome breakfast and then go our separate ways, ready for the next call.
We’ve got a proper kitchen with an electric cooker – no gas because we might have to leave it abruptly – and a microwave for those who want to do a quick ‘ding’ meal. We have to do our cooking on station as we can't leave at any time during our shift in case a call comes in. It's nice because it also brings the social aspect to the station. It’s more like home if you’re sat down having a proper meal together – which is invariably interrupted. Especially if you have Dan’s legendary lasagne. It’s epic and we fill ourselves to the brim, but whenever he cooks it we always have a call out.
What about the Christmas party?
Everyone who’s not on shift will get together at a local pub or restaurant. And the crew who are on duty will have a takeaway meal at the station, so they get something too.
Are the volunteers involved in much community safety work along the Thames?
Yes, we go out and engage with waterside restaurants and pubs, giving throw bag training and increasing their awareness of who they can call in an emergency, and of what they can do when people appear to be in distress on the bridge. The guys at Chiswick do a huge amount of school visits and talks. And we have lots of visitors at Tower – school groups, cubs, guides, brownies, WI groups, church groups, students on pre-med training, ambulance centre control staff ... No 2 days are the same. And, of course, operational requirements come first.
Chris and the Tower 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.