Lifeboat women: Stefanie Carr from Galway RNLI
I was tired the day Stefanie and I chatted over Skype – the result of a late-night shout to a missing person (found and returned to safety). I began to realise I was spending almost as much time answering questions as I was asking them. Was it because of my dip in energy? Perhaps, but I think it was really because Stefanie – known as Stef – has an unstoppable curiosity, as interested in my experience as I was to hear about hers.
She grew up in Galway, Ireland, the middle sister between two boys. From the age of 5, she wanted to be a physical education (PE) teacher, such was her love for school and abundance of energy. Stef has always known her own mind – and had the drive to follow through.
Becoming a PE teacher remained her goal throughout school and university, where she’d lifeguard at swimming pools in her spare time. Ten years of teaching later, she moved back to Galway and joined the staff at St Joseph’s School. Stef’s question on returning to her hometown was: ‘How am I going to use my time?’, as if being a teacher wasn’t busy enough! As a child, she was constantly swimming in the sea or the river, so volunteering at the local lifeboat station was the obvious choice.
She started out as shore crew in 2011, helping to launch and recover Galway’s Atlantic 85 lifeboat. The 25 crew respond to about 30 callouts every year. The shouts are generally seasonal: fishing boats in winter, missing people from autumn to spring, and holidaying sailors and kayakers in the summer.
‘I felt like I was at James Bond school’
After around a year as shore crew, Stef started training to be on the lifeboat. She didn’t grow up around boats, so she learned everything she knows through the RNLI. A training course at the RNLI College in Poole, Dorset, in 2014 was a key part of this. ‘I felt like I was at James Bond school,’ says Stefanie.
The College’s pool mimics storms and capsizes. The conditions we hope never to encounter but want to be prepared for. These training courses bring people together from across Ireland and the UK, and enduring friendships are forged when you pull each other onto a liferaft in a (simulated) storm. ‘Being part of the RNLI is like shrinking the planet,’ Stef describes.
A sense of closeness is also central to Galway life. The city stands at the point where the River Corrib joins the sea. Residents frequently walk the promenade, strengthening their connection with the water – and therefore the RNLI. Stefanie remarks on the strong support the crew receives from their tight-knit coastal community. This bond with the city also means the crew don’t stop volunteering when they land back on shore. In any given week, they might be found at a fundraising event, receiving a cheque on behalf of their station.
RNLI crews have to be ready for the unexpected. Still, the Galway crew checked twice when a message came through one autumn day in 2014: ‘dolphin attack’. Stef was one of four volunteers servicing lifejackets at the station when the pager sounded.
‘Does it mean dog?’ they wondered, which seemed much more likely.
It meant dolphin. They’re not unusual in Irish waters and aren’t normally aggressive to people – but that day, a dolphin was slapping and nudging five swimmers in Galway Bay. A passing fishing boat tried to help, creating a barrier between the swimmers and their attacker. The Galway crew arrived, joining the fishing boat in keeping the dolphin away until the swimmers made it to shore. Mindful of other potential swimmers, RNLI volunteers put out warnings. The boat crew also patrolled the area, seeking to guide the dolphin out to sea. It was no less aggressive towards the boat than it had been to people. The swimmers weren’t hurt, though they were understandably shaken.
‘This is why we do it’
Stefanie recalls another memorable shout from the past year. The pagers went off at 3.30am one Friday (with a teacher’s timetable, Stefanie can’t sleep in late if she’s been on a shout overnight – I’m full of admiration). The weather was horrendous – the kind that you think surely no-one will be out in. But a young man was, and he had slipped into one of the many canals leading into the River Corrib – one of the fastest flowing rivers in Europe.
The young man was clinging onto some ivy but the lifeboat couldn’t reach him – there was a low bridge blocking their path. The fire service arrived on scene and climbed down to the casualty, but it was impossible to lift him out. They had only one option: put a lifejacket onto the man and float with him downstream to the waiting lifeboat crew. The best solution to a bad situation.
The casualty and three firefighters soon entered the fast-flowing River Corrib, passing under one bridge, and then another, before reaching the crew. The helm was working to keep the lifeboat in position, despite the wind and current pushing it towards the pier wall. Stef was stationed at the front of the lifeboat, scanning the water with a torch. She remembers: ‘The helm was just so calm. Everyone knew what they were doing, even in all the madness, the dark, the awful weather. It didn’t make me afraid. It made me think: “This is why we do it.”’
Pulling four people out of a powerful river in those conditions requires a team effort. One by one, the lifeboat crew hauled the casualty and firefighters into the boat. They swiftly brought them back to the lifeboat station where three ambulances were waiting to take them to hospital. Everyone was safe.
Throughout our conversation, Stef’s immense drive is evident. Alongside teaching and being on the lifeboat crew, she’s also a triathlete and an ambassador for Jigsaw, a youth mental health charity. Two years ago, she cycled the 1600-mile Wild Atlantic Way to fundraise for them. And just for fun, she popped into lifeboat stations all along the route on the west coast of Ireland.
‘No matter what I’ve done, I’ve always wanted to go as far as I can,’ she says.
For Stefanie, the challenge is when she feels limited. I ask her about what she’s overcome to become lifeboat crew. She tells me about how a mountain bike injury kept her off the boat for a few weeks. When the pager sounded, not answering the call was a real difficulty.
We talk about what’s next for her with the lifeboat: ‘I’ve got a fearless streak and I’m an information junkie. I just keep pushing. I want to learn and do all that I can.’
And I’m sure that she will.