The last Tyne: Waving Annie goodbye
Wicklow lifeboat crew reflect on 30 years of lifesaving with the last of the Tyne class lifeboats – the Annie Blaker.
In 1982, Dexy’s Midnight Runners got the world on the dancefloor. A little boy named William became third in line to the throne. At the cinema, ET phoned home – and then flew away in a shiny spaceship.
And RNLI volunteers got a shiny new craft of their own in the Tyne class lifeboat. Wicklow’s Second Coxswain Ciarán Doyle recalls the first time he stepped onboard the Tyne: ‘I had been lifeboat crew for 5 years, and then suddenly this spaceship arrived. I looked in it and saw all these electronics, engine control systems, nothing like we were used to. It was a huge leap.’
Thirty-seven years later, the Wicklow volunteers were the last crew in the RNLI to still go to sea in a Tyne class lifeboat. And while they were excited about the arrival of a brand-new Shannon class lifeboat, there was a certain sadness at saying goodbye to Annie Blaker, the last of the Tynes.
‘I believe she has a soul,’ says Mechanic Brendan Copeland. ‘She requires a lot of attention, and a lot of looking after, but when we’re out there, never once has she frightened us. And we’ve been out in some horrendous conditions.’
Crew Member and Deputy Mechanic Connie O’Gara agrees: ‘Her personality? Rock solid. A little bit temperamental every now and again, but she will keep going. Whatever the coxswain wants, she’ll give it to him.’
With Press Officer Tommy Dover describing Annie Blaker as ‘a reliable big sister, always there waiting to help’, it’s clear that, for the volunteers at Wicklow, the lifeboat is not just a vehicle, a platform, a collection of metal parts. She’s part of the team.
Annie Blaker started helping those in trouble off the Wicklow coast before she even arrived at the station. On the day she was due to arrive, a September Saturday in 1989, the station’s existing Watson class lifeboat JW Archer, with various local dignitaries onboard, headed out to escort her home.
That’s when the call came in. Someone had broken their leg near Wicklow Head. There were too many people onboard JW Archer to carry out a speedy and safe evacuation. And so the new lifeboat was off on her first shout.
Since then, lifeboat crews onboard Annie Blaker have rescued more than 400 people, in more than 340 launches.
One that sticks in Ciarán Doyle’s mind was a November call out to a windsurfer, reported overdue by a friend ashore. The man had broken his shoulder and been helpless and adrift on his board for an hour and a half.
‘He was getting to the point where he felt he was slipping away,’ Ciarán says. ‘He fell off the board and was half in the water, without the strength to climb back up. As he slipped under, he heard something in the water. The Tyne has a very roary type of engine, and it carries through the water. When he heard the sound he knew somebody was coming. We were still a long way away at that point, but that sound gave him the strength to climb back on to the board. I got quite emotional when he told me that.’
It’s that sound of Annie Blaker's engines that Connie O’Gara will miss the most: ‘On a Sunday morning, when I’m in bed with the windows open, and I’m not on the training exercise that day, I hear that sound – that two-stroke diesel, turbo-charged sound – and I know it’s her. It’ll be sad to see her go, and to hear that noise one last time as she goes off into the distance. I’m sure we’ll get to know the sound of the Shannon too, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be quite the same.’
Annie Blaker speaks to Brendan Copeland and his team of volunteer mechanics in her own way. ‘Somehow, she tells me when there’s something wrong,’ he says. ‘I get a feeling that something’s not right, and I go and check and, sure enough, something’s about to give. I can’t explain it. It could be a different sound or a slightly different smell. And it’s not just me. The Second Mechanic, Lisa O’Leary – a brilliant pair of hands, can strip an engine quicker than I can – the same thing happens with her.’
The power of audio: Before leaving @wicklowlifeboat, I made time to edit the sound recording of their Tyne class lifeboat. Read more about the moment I handed the headphones to the man who I knew would love it the most, Brendan the Station Mechanic: https://t.co/dh4uF5eyMd #RNLI pic.twitter.com/WmnkhBNQEB— The Lifeboat Station Project (@ProjectLifeboat) March 30, 2019
There are mixed feelings at Wicklow Lifeboat Station. Sadness at the end of the Annie Blaker era, but also excitement at the imminent arrival of a Shannon class lifeboat.
A step up
The Shannon will be faster and more manoeuvrable, with advanced safety features like SIMS – the system that allows crew members to manage the boat’s functions from their seats. But the longer serving crew, who remember when Annie Blaker arrived on station, don’t think the Shannon will be too big a shock.
‘When we first got the Tyne, it was a huge leap,’ says Second Coxswain Ciarán Doyle. ‘The Shannon is quicker, it’s smarter, it’s got integrated electronics, but I still think the change from a Watson to a Tyne in 1989 was much more of a leap.
‘The Tyne is a covered lifeboat, whereas the Watson only had a sort of canopy a couple of crew could get under. You were pretty much standing out in the elements, very cold and very wet. The Watson was an 8-knot lifeboat and the Tyne at its best can do 18 knots. Also, on the Tyne you could boil water and make a cup of coffee, which is not to be underestimated. There was much more capacity for survivors than the Watson, and the engines were much more powerful.’
In 2019, as in 1989, saying goodbye is sometimes the price of progress.
Coxswain Nick Keogh sums it up: ‘It’ll be hard, but we can’t live in the past or we’d still be rowing around in open boats.’
Brendan adds: ‘I’ll be broken-hearted to see Annie go. But I’m delighted for the young people here. They’re going to get a new station, and it’s not going to be as draughty or as cold. And a faster, more modern boat that works like their touch phone. They give so much of their time – it’s what they deserve.’
Des Davitt, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Wicklow, says: ‘What will I remember about Annie? Standing here on the radio at 3am when the lads are out on a dirty shout. It’s always such a relief to see her lights on her way back in, early in the morning. We’re sending the crew out, and they know the risks, but you get a little bit fearful. “What will I say to the families if anything happens?”
‘I’ve always found the Tyne class to be the only lifeboat in the fleet with classical lines. She just looks right in the water. The lads will tell you she goes through the water perfectly. There’s nothing she can’t take – she’s a fabulous boat.
‘But we’re really looking forward to a new Shannon. And we’re really, really excited about the future for Wicklow RNLI.
Who was Annie Blaker?
The lifeboat Annie Blaker was named after a supporter who was brought up in Bognor Regis, West Sussex. Annie left home at a young age to work as a nanny, and travelled to Canada and Europe, returning to Bognor Regis around 1930 to work in a furniture shop. Annie inherited the shop and bought a sheep farm. She was known in Sussex farming circles as a fierce trader, particularly enjoying the Findon Sheep Fair.
Annie covered half the cost of the lifeboat with a gift in her Will. Find out more about this way of giving at RNLI.org/legacy.