Taking flight: Lifesaving on a hovercraft

Lifeboats have been powering crews to the rescue for over 195 years – but, at Southend RNLI, the volunteers rely on a rather unusual sort of lifesaver. Let us introduce you to the hovercraft. 

Southend-on-Sea’s hovercraft, Vera Ravine

Photo: Stephen Duncombe

Southend-on-Sea’s hovercraft, Vera Ravine

Every RNLI lifeboat station is unique, and carefully designed to help volunteers save lives in their community most efficiently. 

Southend is the only station to launch lifeboats from two separate boathouses, one at each end of the town’s 1.25-mile-long pier. And they’re also one of just four RNLI stations that are home to a hovercraft. 

Vera Ravine has been launching the Southend volunteers to rescue for over 15 years. She’s a loyal, lifesaving part of the family.   

‘I adopted the hovercraft as soon as she arrived,’ says Commander Tony Bonham. ‘She’s my baby! I’ve been through all the highs and lows with her – I know everything about her.’

‘Our hovercraft is invaluable,’ adds Crew Member Bob Sporle. ‘I honestly can’t imagine how my dad started his lifeboat career without it – he must have been walking along the mud for so long!

‘The tidal range at Southend isn’t the biggest, but the area it covers is ginormous,’ Bob continues. ‘At low tide, you’ve got miles of mudflats along the pier and Southend beachfront, and at high tide it’s completely different – you can sail or swim, no problem.’  

How a hovercraft works

‘You have a pilot of the hovercraft,’ explains Tony, ‘but they have limited vision because they’re positioned low down inside the cab. I’m a commander, and my job is to basically steer the hovercraft for the pilot, because he’s using the engines and can’t see. 

‘I tell the pilot where to go, when to power up, power down and when an obstacle’s coming up. You have to think a lot on your feet because you do exactly the opposite to driving – to brake, for example, you need to power up (or accelerate). It’s quite stressful!’

‘We also use “intelligent balance”, where you physically use the crew to steer. So, if you need to turn left you call out: “Everybody lean left!”. 

‘It’s very different to being on a lifeboat,’ Bob adds. ‘Any hovercraft pilot will tell you: “Forget everything you know about being on a lifeboat.”

‘The hovercraft is a really smooth ride. It’s an odd feeling because you lift up above the water – you never forget your first time going out on it. You really appreciate the skill involved to launch this kind of craft and what it takes to fly it.’ 

Southend RNLI Crew Member Bob Sporle

Photo: RNLI

Southend RNLI Crew Member Bob Sporle

A summer like no other

‘Since lockdown eased, we’ve had a lot of shouts,’ Tony admits. ‘We’ve had the busiest June on record, to the point where we’ve been staying down at the boathouse. The hovercraft’s been out every day, sometimes twice a day, and it’s still like that now.’

‘We’ve been working closely with other lifeboat stations – especially lately,’ explains Bob. ‘We often get called to assist Sheerness’s lifeboat and sometimes Gravesend RNLI. It’s great to be able to work alongside them and they’re just as grateful to have us as a flank station.’

A memorable rescue

‘With lifeboats, crews have got certain areas they’ll launch to,’ Tony says. ‘But with the hovercraft, we can be tasked to go into other areas – and in June, we were paged to help a stranded personal watercraft in Sheerness RNLI’s patch towards Deadman’s Island. We’re not too familiar with that side of the River Swale – it takes a good hour to get there by car.’

‘It was the first time I’d been on a shout in months,’ adds Bob. ‘And because it had been so long, a lot of us had to say: “Remind me where that is again?”  

Tony explains: ‘We were speaking to the Coastguard over the radio and discovered Kent Fire Service had their lifeboat available – but they couldn’t get to him because the tide was out. That’s why our hovercraft is essential.’

‘It didn’t take us long at all to find the casualty because he was high and dry,’ says Bob. ‘It became clear that we wouldn’t be able to move him off the mud as we can’t carry out a tow on the hovercraft’.

Southend-on-Sea's hovercraft Vera Ravine

Photo: Stephen Duncombe

‘It may not have been a life or death situation,’ Tony adds, ‘but the casualty was very cold and you never know how a situation can escalate – the sea breeze can really get into your bones. We think he’d been stuck there in his board shorts, with no phone or radio, for around 4 hours.

‘We were able to pass him into the care of the fire service and helped connect the line from their lifeboat to the personal watercraft – then we were satisfied that we could return back to station as the casualty was safe.’  

One of a kind

‘This was a very unique shout – but we’re a very unique station,’ says Bob. ‘I know I’m biased! But no matter what we assume about a rescue it can always result in something completely different.’ 

Help our lifesavers around the UK and Ireland keep launching to rescue – whether by lifeboat or hovercraft – by making a donation today.