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How our lifesavers go from human to hero

RNLI crew around the UK and Ireland are often called heroes for their acts of incredible bravery. But they are as human as the rest of us.

Courtown crew member Fergus Slevin looking out to sea

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams                

'You’re the ones with RNLI written all over you. You’re the people who are there to help,’ says Elissa Thursfield, Trainee Helm at Abersoch and Flood Rescue volunteer. ‘Rescuees don’t recognise your face or know your name – what they see is a logo they can trust. You’ve got to uphold that and get on with it.’

Like Elissa, RNLI crew around the UK and Ireland are often called heroes for their acts of incredible bravery. But they are as human as the rest of us. And – under pressure – even the most courageous can question themselves.

When one wrong move could mean the difference between life and death, how do lifesavers switch from human into hero? How do they get from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I can do this’?

'Every move you make'

Father Tom Dalton, Crew Member at Courtown Lifeboat Station

 ‘It’s like automatic pilot,’ says Courtown crew member of 5 years Father Tom Dalton. ‘But that’s the training coming out. It’s part of us. We’re all so used to training together, we almost know how each other thinks.

‘Once a month, we do scenarios, making them as realistic as possible so we’re used to working together at that level. And we train every week.’

But in August last year, when Courtown crew were called out to a 13-year-old girl with suspected spinal injuries, the pressure to perform perfectly was tested to its limit. Knowing that every decision, every movement you make matters, is an enormous responsibility. And one Tom remembers vividly: ‘She didn’t have feeling in her legs,’ he recalls. ‘I shudder to think of that family trying to bring her in on their own. It could have resulted in life-changing injuries.’

‘All three of us are calm by nature,’ he adds, referring to Helm Peter Browne and fellow Crew Member Fergus Slevin, who took the lead in the water. ‘At least we give that impression. But it’s like the swan – gliding gracefully on the surface, feet working furiously underneath!

‘We didn’t know what the outcome was going to be, but we could all put our hands on our hearts and say we’d done the best we could do. Yes, it was a worrying situation but we worked as a unit and it was textbook.

‘This is why we train. This is why we put in the long hours. This is why we do what we do. This,’ Tom says finally, ‘makes it all worthwhile.’

'What if?'

Vicki Reid, Lifeguard in Fife

 We were at the far side of the beach when we heard an engine revving. We both turned around just in time to see a car flying off the pier about 250m away.’

According to Lifeguard Vicki Reid, the beach at Burntisland is normally quite safe. So when she and her sister, Senior Lifeguard Kayleigh, saw a car plummet into the water on a sunny afternoon in July 2016, it was quite a shock.

The sisters immediately sprang into action. ‘I didn’t think at that point,’ Vicki remembers. ‘I just grabbed the rescue board and started paddling. My sister swam over, radioing the Coastguard as she went. Five minutes later, the car was completely underwater.’

As Vicki paddled over, the seriousness of the situation began to sink in. She recalled the Buncrana Pier tragedy in Donegal earlier that year, in which five people had drowned in similar circumstances. ‘I could see the car going down fast and I remember thinking: “I need to paddle faster,”’ she says.

‘That’s when the what ifs started racing through my head: “What if someone’s stuck inside? What if there are children in the car? What if I can’t get there in time? What if I can’t get everyone out of the water alive?” But that thought snaps you into action and your training kicks in.

‘This was my first proper rescue and I’m glad everyone made it out safely. A sinking car was quite an unusual scenario! But we’re trained to adapt our skills to whatever comes up.’

'Another human being'

Dave Sheldon, Trainee Helm at Blyth Lifeboat Station

 ‘The whole of my family react to the pager when it goes off. My wife gets anxious. The kids know what I’m getting into. Even the dog leads the way to the door. And when the pager went that day, I knew it was going to be a big one.’

Crew Member Dave Sheldon works as a trucker – a job not without its risks. And in his 2 years on the Blyth crew he’s seen some challenging conditions. But rescuing an angler trapped at the end of a crumbling pier during a ‘weather bomb’ is not something he’d pictured when he signed up.

‘We decided we’d try to get a man on there,’ Dave recalls. ‘I leaned over our Helm Graham’s shoulder and said: “Get me over there and I’ll go.”

Despite high winds and wild seas, he carefully picked his way across the rotten and slippery boards with focus and determination. ‘Once you’re committed to going,’ he says, ‘you just go.’

On the way back it was a different story. ‘I thought: “I can’t do this. I’m alright looking after myself but can I actually bring this guy home too?” That’s when I questioned it.’

‘But then,’ he continues, ‘you go – snap. I’m there to do the job, I know what tools I’ve got and I’ve got the support, so you just get on. I’m not just looking after myself, this is another person with family and friends – another human being.’

'Are we all in this?'

Elissa Thursfield, Trainee Helm at Abersoch Lifeboat Station

‘It’s really eerie. The fields are pitch black in all directions. Water’s washing over the road in waves. You feel it getting faster and more relentless, and you think: “I can’t do this.”’

Abersoch Crew Member and RNLI Flood Rescue Volunteer Elissa Thursfield recalls her 4-day deployment to Cumbria during floods in 2015 as the most challenging thing she’s ever done.

‘At first you think: “We’re getting in that?!” Because you don’t know what’s under the surface. But hearing our team leader say: “Are we all in this?” with such confidence, well that was it. I went from thinking: “I can’t do this” to: “There’s somebody out there waiting for me who’s way more scared than I am. I can do this.”’

Elissa recounts the rescue of a family from a remote bungalow in Levens, near Kendal: ‘The water was up to the sills and rising so fast they’d considered breaking through the ceiling to get on the roof. That’s when our teamwork and training kick in. We have a job to do.’

A crew member for 13 years, Elissa hopes to qualify as Absersoch’s first female helm later this year. ‘I’ve asked myself: “Can I do this? Am I ready to be the person at the front who can give everybody else confidence?” And I know the answer is yes. Cumbria showed me that.’

'You know how they feel'

Richard Talbert, Crew Member at Arbroath Lifeboat Station

 ‘I had it in my head to join the lifeboats since I left school,’ says Arbroath Crew Member Richard Talbert. ‘But I wasn’t used to swimming in the open sea – I had a fear of it. I guess it’s a survival instinct that makes you stop and think: “I’m not getting in that!”

Fear of the water might seem an insurmountable obstacle for a new lifeboat recruit but for Richard – who joined the crew in 2015 – and his Assessor Trainer Alex Purves, quitting wasn’t an option.

‘Conditions can look quite calm from the surface,’ Richard explains, ‘but when you’re in it, everything’s amplified. You realise you’re just a little person in the water.’

During his course at the RNLI Sea Survival Centre in Poole, Dorset, Richard was the last to jump into the wave tank where real-life conditions – including darkness, thunder, lightning and rain – are simulated.

‘I just thought: “No, I can’t do this.” I had to go home feeling as though I couldn’t do it. It was back home that Alex took me aside and spent a bit of time with me, just jumping in and out of the water. He said: “Look, if I can do it … ” and I knew what he was saying. So I took a leap of faith, and now,’ Richard laughs, ‘you can’t keep me out of the water.

‘Having a moment like that, when you’ve been shaken up and overcome it, really brings it home to you. You get a sense of what it’s like for a casualty who hasn’t got the gear and the training. You know how they feel. And I think that helps.’

Ironically, the very thing that causes our lifesavers to question themselves is also what brings them back – their humanity.

‘At the end of the day,’ says Richard, ‘that adrenaline and urge to save a life kicks in. So you search in your toolbox for what will help: Have I got the right gear? Check. The training? Check. The best support? Check. And then you’re away.’

Training and teamwork help our volunteers go from 'I can't do this' to 'I can'. And it's not just lifeboat crew members and lifeguards who can save lives at sea. See how you could volunteer and be part of a lifesaving team.