Douglas RNLI Lifeboat Station on the Isle of Man is one of many lifeboat stations where fathers have been inspiring their children to follow in their footsteps.
This family affair was started by none other than Sir William Hillary, who founded the RNLI on the island in 1824.
Both Sir William and his son Augustus served on the first Douglas lifeboat, the
True Blue. In December 1827, they were both awarded gallantry medals for rescuing 17 sailors during a storm.
Almost 200 years later, three fathers have had their children join them on the volunteer crew of the
Sir William Hillary, the Douglas RNLI Tyne class lifeboat, named in honour of its founder.
They are Peter Cowin and son Philip, aged 20; Tony Radcliffe and son Robert, aged 26; Peter Washington and daughter Lavinia, aged 20.
Peter Cowin, an engineer, joined the Douglas crew 24 years ago. The Manxman grew up with seafaring strongly rooted in his family, as he and other family members worked for the Steam Packet Company.
The RNLI quickly became part of daily life for him and his wife Rhian, who is a member of the station’s fundraising committee.
Peter says one of his strongest memories as a crewmember was the Solway Harvester rescue in 2000: ‘I still remember it vividly because the kids were only small. We had just sat down for tea, to have bangers and mash, at about 7.30pm.
‘It was an absolutely howling night, and suddenly my pager went off. Rhian was shocked, saying: ‘who the hell is out on a night like tonight?’ I said that it was probably just a false alarm and that I would be home shortly. Turns out it was one of the biggest shouts I have been on, we spent 18 hours on the water, with an unfortunately tragic outcome as seven men drowned.’
Peter adds: ‘My son Philip has been in and out of the boathouse since he was a baby, he knew the boat before he ever got into it!’
Philip, who works as a high rope instructor, began crew training when he was 17, and took part in his first launch when he turned 18. Father and son have been on almost a dozen shouts together now, although they see little of each other aboard when Peter is operating as mechanic below the deck.
Peter says: ‘I have complete confidence in all of the crew, including Philip. If we are all trained well, and have the right equipment, I haven’t got any issues whatsoever.’
Tony Radcliffe is a full time mechanic and coxswain at the station. Despite having no seafaring experience, he was encouraged to get involved with the RNLI through friends at Ramsey lifeboat station. He remembers: ‘Once I had a go, and realised I could do it, I got hooked.’
Radcliffe family life is often interrupted by the unmistakable beeps of the pager. Tony believes that his pager had a special knack of only going off just when food is about to be served whilst the family are out for meals.
His son Robert, who works in finance, was not put off by these interruptions to family life, and followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the crew five years ago.
Tony describes their relationship on board the boat as the same as anybody else. He says: ‘Robert probably ends up getting a harder time than anyone else if anything! There’s a sense of being crew first, family second whilst out on a shout.’
Lavinia Washington is one of the two female crew members at Douglas. Her father, Peter ‘Washy’ Washington, has been a crewmember for her entire life and so she is well accustomed to the boat and the boathouse.
Lavinia works as a Harbour Keeper with Isle of Man government, and is one of the only dual-members of both the Douglas and Ramsey RNLI crews.
Lavinia says: ‘Growing up, Dad being on the lifeboat crew was all I knew. It took me a while to realise that not all dads are lifeboat crew and come home from the sea at 7am when everyone else is getting up for school, but as soon as I understood more, I wanted to join the crew too.’
Her father praises her when he talks about her joining the crew, saying: ‘She decided to train to be a crew member as soon as she was old enough, turning 17. I had no qualms about her joining, she is the kind of girl who knows how to have a laugh and when to be serious, and the training that we all receive through the RNLI is second to none.’
Lavinia adds: ‘Joining the crew has been a real learning curve, I have had to take on huge responsibility for myself and the casualties who we are trying to help too. The thought process is starting to become like second nature to me, and I am able to transfer some of the skills I have picked up to work and normal life.’
Both father and daughter joke about the race to the car station when their pagers go off.
Peter says: ‘One of us will drive, depending on who gets out of bed first or who has their shoes already on. My wife Kirsty is wonderfully supportive.'
The relationship that the pair maintain when part of the crew is a professional one. Peter says: ‘Our rule is that she doesn’t call me Dad on the boat or at crew functions.’
Lavinia says that this was one of the strangest things to get used to: ‘Having called him Dad all my life, I now have to call him Washy or Pete, if I call him Dad, the whole crew turn around and take the mick out of me, I don’t want any special treatment.’
She adds: ‘The best part about having Dad on the crew too, for me, is being able to have a little debrief with him after a shout. He worked in the emergency services, with the ambulance in Blackburn before he moved to the Isle of Man and joined the lifeboat, so he has seen and done it all before. He is able to tell me what is normal or not, and is great for advice.’
This year, the trio of families had their first shout altogether last March, when they were called to assist the Coastguard in the search for a missing person. This turned into a successful recovery of that missing person from the foot of cliffs on the Marine Drive, near Douglas.
When the call came in at nearly midnight, all three pairs of fathers and children turned up at the station for what Tony Radcliffe describes as their ‘family day out’.
They went assist in illuminating the scene for the Coastguard. It then became evident that the dinghy carried by the lifeboat would be useful in recovering the casualty and administering first aid.
When Tony Radcliffe, Deputy Second Coxwain, made the call to launch the dinghy, Lavinia Washington was the first one to volunteer to row ashore, Peter Cowin was the second crewmember in the dinghy.
Lavinia’s father recalls: ‘The minute I saw her climb over the rails to the dinghy, I thought ‘what have I done?’ She was only 19 at the time, and had only recently completed her casualty care course. I had no idea what she was going to see, considering that we didn’t know the condition of the casualty who had fallen off the cliffs at that point. That unease only lasted for a split second though, I was relieved that she was with Peter Cowin, I’m very confident in his ability.’
Peter Washington described his pride in his daughter, on her return to the main lifeboat: ‘Knowing that she has gone through that kind of rescue, it won’t phase me again. It’s something that every parent goes through, seeing their kids grow up, and it certainly brought home for me what we are both out there to do, that is saving lives at sea. I did a similar rescue a few weeks later and text her afterwards to remind her that I’m still not too old to do that myself!’
Key facts about the RNLI
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. Our volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service in the United Kingdom and Ireland from 238 lifeboat stations, including four along the River Thames and inland lifeboat stations at Loch Ness, Lough Derg, Enniskillen and Lough Ree. Additionally the RNLI has more than 1,000 lifeguards on over 240 beaches around the UK and operates a specialist flood rescue team, which can respond anywhere across the UK and Ireland when inland flooding puts lives at risk.
The RNLI relies on public donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. As a charity it is separate from, but works alongside, government-controlled and funded coastguard services. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824 our lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved at least 140,000 lives. Volunteers make up 95% of the charity, including 4,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members and 3,000 volunteer shore crew. Additionally, tens of thousands of other dedicated volunteers raise funds and awareness, give safety advice, and help in our museums, shops and offices.
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