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Lifesaving at a distance

Launching their lifeboats during the pandemic brings extra challenges for the crew.

The crew of the Swanage D class lifeboat Phyl & Jack before the lockdown

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The crew of the Swanage D class lifeboat Phyl & Jack before the lockdown

Swanage lifeboat volunteer Darren Tomes had his head under a car bonnet when his crew pager went off. It was early afternoon on Mother’s Day, Sunday 22 March, the weekend before lockdown. A lone walker had slipped and broken her arm on rocks near Chapman’s Pool, a Dorset beauty spot, and both lifeboat crews were summoned to the station for a possible launch.

‘It was the first time we’d had to social distance on a rescue,’ recalls Darren, a qualified lifeboat helm. ‘There was no mixing at the station. Crew members assembled outside the boathouse while the crews for the inshore and all-weather lifeboats were chosen.’ Those who weren’t needed went back home.

It was confirmed: the crews would need to launch both lifeboats. A sea swell and strong force 6 easterly breeze required two extra shore crew on either side of the inshore lifeboat to steady her as she was winched down the slipway. On the D class inshore lifeboat, there isn’t the space for social distancing, but the protective kit helps keep the crew safe.

Darren Tomes, Swanage Crew Member

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Darren Tomes, Swanage Crew Member

Helm Matt Steeden fired up the engine seconds before the lifeboat entered the water to provide enough power to escape from the wash. Minutes later, the larger Shannon class all-weather lifeboat launched to the rescue too.

Located along cliffs 14 miles from the lifeboat station, Chapman’s Pool is at the very limit of the D class’s range. To get there, the crew had to pass over a submerged rock ledge at Peveril Point.

‘We knew it would be pretty rough,’ says Darren. ‘The waves are always a lot bigger on the ledge. Conditions were worse because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction to the tide.’ They got across the ledge safely. Once through that, Helm Matt expertly steered the smaller boat around the cliffs so Darren could climb ashore.

Clad in full lifeboat protective kit, including drysuit, helmet with visor, and latex gloves – and carrying a spare pair of gloves in his pocket – it took Darren several minutes of wading and clambering over rocks to reach the casualty. ‘She’d been walking near rock pools, keeping her distance from other walkers, when she slipped. Without us I don’t know how she’d have got back to the cove.

Dave Turnball, Coxswain/Mechanic at Swanage Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Dave Turnball, Coxswain/Mechanic at Swanage Lifeboat Station

‘There were four other people with her – the Coastguard rescue team and two paramedics, and a rescue helicopter was on its way. We had to think how to get her to the waiting ambulance. Putting her in the D class would have been the easiest way to get her off. But she had broken her arm and was in a lot of pain, so we couldn’t move her.’

With help from Darren on the ground, the rescue helicopter manoeuvred into position. ‘From 150 feet up, we all look pretty small,’ Darren says. After first radioing the lifeboat coxswain on the bigger lifeboat, Darren let off his bright orange sea survival flare to guide the pilot in.

‘I got the casualty ready for lifting. Luckily she didn’t have a massive injury so didn’t need stabilising before we moved her. I just made sure I didn’t get too close, maintaining more of a distance than I would normally.’

With the casualty safely onboard the helicopter, Darren rejoined his crewmates before setting off back to the lifeboat station. ‘Conditions were still quite rough,’ he says. ‘The Shannon was there to escort us back. We’d have had difficulty managing in the swell on our own.’ 

‘How do we keep our distance?’

Dave Turnball, Coxswain/Mechanic at Swanage Lifeboat Station, says: ‘Covid-19 has changed the way we deal with casualties. We have to assume anyone is infectious. We’ll do whatever needs to be done to save someone, but we also ask ourselves questions like: Do we need to give them casualty care? Do we need to transport them? And how do we keep our distance?’

Behind every rescuer, there is a supportive family of volunteers and supporters who help launch them to the rescue and bring them home safely. People like you. Make a donation today to help keep saving lives at sea.