Following in Grace Darling’s footsteps

Julia Kendal, Crew Member at Teddington, speaks with Seahouses Crew Member Kika Isakiewicz to learn about what it means to stand on the shoulders of one of the most famous women in RNLI history. 

A portrait of Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks (1818-1891)

Photo: RNLI Grace Darling Museum

An oil on canvas portrait of Grace Darling by Thomas Brooks

Every lifeboat woman is aware that they inherit Grace Darling’s legacy when they pull on their yellow wellies. But perhaps none feel this more than the women who crew at Seahouses Lifeboat Station in Northumberland, just along the coast from where Grace set out into a storm to rescue nine strangers. 

It all started 183 years ago. 62 women, men and children set sail on the steamship, Forfarshire, from Yorkshire to Scotland. Two days into the journey, they were fighting for their lives in a storm off the Northumberland coast. 

The ship’s engine had failed. Seeking shelter, the captain turned for shore, but a large wave dashed the ship onto Big Harcar rock. Within 15 minutes, half the ship had sunk and dozens of people had lost their lives. Nine of them made it to the ship’s lifeboat. A further nine hauled themselves onto the same rock that had crippled their ship, battered but alive. 

The Rescue of the Forfarshire by Grace Darling by R Watson

Photo: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

The Rescue of the Forfarshire by Grace Darling by R Watson

Enter Grace Darling, who spotted the nine survivors on the rock from Longstone Lighthouse, where her father William was the lighthouse keeper. Aware that the storm that had broken this ship might also stop the nearest lifeboat crew (Seahouses, then called North Sunderland) from launching, Grace and William set out in their rowing boat. They pulled on the oars against the tide and wind for a mile until they could safely reach Big Harcar rock. Eight men and one woman were taken to safety that day. And Grace Darling became the first woman to receive an RNLI Medal. 

Grace was 22 when her act of humanity made her unwillingly famous. She would sadly die of tuberculosis just 4 years later, but because of her actions on 7 September 1838, her name is still a watchword for lifeboat women to this day.

Seahouses Crew Member Kika Isakiewicz

Photo: RNLI Seahouses

Seahouses Crew Member Kika Isakiewicz 

Since moving to Seahouses 8 years ago, Kika Isakiewicz has come to share in Grace Darling’s legacy. She left the mountains of Poland to join her family in the coastal village in the north-east of England. And she stayed because she fell in love - with the beauty of the sea and the peace of village life. Her passion for this coastline has transformed her life. A few years ago, she traded a stressful job as a head chef for a season working on the tourist boats. This meant she was immersed in Grace Darling’s story, hearing the skipper tell it to visitors a few times a day during the summer tours.

And much like Grace, a parent played a big role in her lifeboating experience. Kika recalls what happened when her mum first showed her the lifeboat station: ‘I fell even more in love. I was used to sailing on the lakes in Poland but for me, this was like seeing heroes. And I knew I wanted to do it.’

But Kika is also shy of the spotlight. She thought about joining the crew for 2 years before taking the leap. Even then, she lingered outside the crew room, uncertain of whether to enter. Thankfully, the decision was made for her. One of the female crew knew Kika from the local gym and spotted her pacing back and forth (at 6ft tall, Kika can’t easily hide). A kind but firm steer got her into the crew room, where everyone was immediately welcoming. And that January evening, Kika went out on an RNLI lifeboat for the very first time. 

It wasn’t immediately easy. Part of the exercise involved climbing a ladder down the side of the boat – always a challenge for someone who doesn’t like heights, but even more so with hands frozen by the winter chill. But she wasn’t put off. By the spring, she had completed her training and received her pager, a huge moment for every lifeboat crew member. Kika says: ‘When I got my pager, I was so happy. I was proud of myself because it was a huge achievement for me. I was excited to have joined this group of people. I felt like I began to be part of something very big.’

Seahouses Lifeboat Station is home to two lifeboats: the smaller inshore D class and the all-weather Shannon (which, in January 2021, replaced their Mersey, which was named after Grace Darling). The crew are regularly called to the aid of kayakers, surfers, and divers exploring the sea. But often they rescue people who never meant to enter the water but were caught out by the rising tides and shifting sandbanks. Kika remembers one such shout from a few summers ago.

Seahouses’ D class lifeboat, Peter Downes

The D class lifeboat at Seahouses, Peter Downes

Photo: RNLI Seahouses

A man and woman had driven out along the causeway between Holy Island and the Northumberland coast. But unaware of the tide times, the water quickly overtook them and began to surround the car. Kika explains: ‘By the time we arrived, the car was covered by water and the couple was on the roof. I had to climb onto the roof to secure them. They were panicking a little and shaken by it. I can clearly remember standing on that car and looking out at the water all around us.’

Kika helped transfer the couple into the D class and back to safety. Without the RNLI, the car was at risk of floating on the tide, and the couple being washed away with it. 

As she describes it, it’s easy to imagine this shout from the couple’s point of view and see echoes of Grace Darling’s rescue. The terror as water surrounded and flooded the vessel. The scramble to safety. The sheer relief of seeing a rescue boat coming.

So what does Grace Darling mean for the Seahouses crew today? Kika replies simply and beautifully: ‘Grace Darling is our patron. Seahouses is Grace Darling’s place’. 

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