Lifeboat women: Emma Noble from Kyle of Lochalsh

In the second of our series on lifeboat women, Teddington volunteer Julia Kendal spoke with Emma Noble, the first female helm at Kyle of Lochalsh in north-west Scotland. 

Emma Noble from Kyle of Lochalsh RNLI

Photo: Eilidh Preston

Emma Noble, Helm at Kyle of Lochalsh

Kyle Lifeboat Station normally answers around 25 shouts in a year. Emma Noble was called to five in her first weekend. 

She’d been living with a pager for much longer than that, though. Her boyfriend, Callum, is a retained fire fighter in the village of Kyle where they grew up, so she was used to a pager sound ringing out at any moment. It held a sense of fascination for her – who was in trouble, and what kind of help did they need? But she was never the one answering that call. 

That is, until Callum came home from the local pub with news that Kyle Lifeboat Station was recruiting and a mutual friend on the crew wanted to know if she was interested. Emma already loved the sea, having been diving in the seascapes of north-west Scotland for over a decade. And she liked the idea of serving the community that she’d grown up with. 

‘It’s nice to think that you’re able to go and help people, especially in a small community – as it can often be someone you know.’

So, one Monday night in 2013, she visited the crew on their training night to find out more. Three months later, she was presented with her pager. And the following Saturday, she was in the middle of making breakfast, set for a lazy morning, when the pager sounded for the first time.

Helm Emma Noble from Kyle of Lochalsh

Photo: Eilidh Preston

As new crew, you hope that you’ll react calmly the first time the pager sounds. You’ve done all the training, but you haven’t been tested in earnest. And until you are, you can feel a kind of nervous energy in all that anticipation. The crew at Kyle normally respond to between 20 and 25 call-outs a year – so new members can wait weeks for their first shout. Emma counts herself lucky to have had such a busy first weekend – it was a confidence boost. She could really do her job. 

And it gave her first-hand experience of how the RNLI works alongside the other emergency services in the area. Kyle Lifeboat Station covers a complicated patch of lochs and islands, bordered by coastal mountains. In addition to working with the police, ambulance and fire brigade, they also serve alongside volunteers in mountain rescue. Emma’s first shout was a great example of this. A male hiker had not returned home by the expected time, and so mountain rescue volunteers had been called out. Time being of the essence, the Kyle lifeboat crew launched to join in the search of the shoreline, and to transport mountain rescue volunteers between search areas, saving them hours of walking time.

On another occasion, the crew answered a call to a man who had collapsed on a fishing boat. Emma remembers arriving to see: ‘the most sick, alive person I’ve ever seen’. Paramedics were on the deck, giving him CPR, but they couldn’t get him to the ambulance. The boat was tied to the pier, but the tide was so low that it was impossible to lift him that height safely. The lifeboat crew were able to get him onto a stretcher and transfer him by boat to the shore. From there it was an ambulance ride to the hospital. Emma speaks with amazement that a man so sick was saved. Without the lifeboat crew, there would have been no way of getting him from where he’d collapsed to the care he needed. Sometimes RNLI crews are a small link in the lifesaving chain, but without us, the chain would be broken. 

When she’s not out on the boat, Emma works from her own studio as a graphic designer and picture framer. She can see the lifeboat station from her studio window. Being so local means she’s been able to respond to a lot of shouts, building on her experience early. Within four years of joining the crew, she was training to become Kyle’s first female helm. 

Kyle of Lochalsh lifeboat

Photo: Eilidh Preston

It wasn’t ‘in at the deep end’ to become helm. As soon as she became competent in her role as crew, Emma started to take on more responsibility. And she’d been paying attention to the decisions that the helms made on shouts – every one a different day, time, situation, need. Because being helm isn’t just about practical skills, it’s about being a leader. Emma recalls the key message she took away from the helm training course at the RNLI College in Poole:

‘The helm’s role is the most difficult on the boat – whatever that is.’

She passed out as helm in November 2018. The next time she responded to the pager, there were several other experienced helms on the boat. But she was the one in the helm’s seat. It was the perfect situation for her first shout as helm: she knew they were there as back up, but she had the confidence of her crew mates to lead.

‘It was validating to be seen as good enough to do that job, to be seen as an equal.’

Since then, Emma has gone on to train as a lifeboat trainer and assessor (LTA). The memory of her crew training is still fresh for her, so she’s enjoying helping others to learn what they need to be lifeboat crew. That includes everything from their role on the boat to using radar in searches – critical for a lifeboat station with just 7 hours of daylight in the winter.

Just 7 years ago, Emma used to wonder what happened after the pager went off. Now she not only knows, she’s the one at the wheel. 

You can see Emma in action on the crew in this video:

Want to see more from our lifeboat women series? Check out Julia's first interview with Teddington Crew Member Sam Armatage.

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

Donate today