George reflects on decades with Stonehaven lifeboat
For nearly 50 years, George Craig MBE has been involved with the RNLI in Stonehaven.
He’s seen a lot of changes since he joined in the 1970s. The crew is no longer mustered by firing rockets, nor do they sit on a damp mattress on the deck of the boat.
But one thing George says is still going strong is the teamwork and camaraderie.
As he prepares to enjoy some well-deserved retirement, he looked back to reflect on his time with the lifeboats.
In 1973, the Piper oil field had just been discovered, The Grill - a men-only bar in Aberdeen - was being stormed by irate women demanding equal access and George had just moved to Stonehaven.
“We moved down to Stonehaven when the kids were little, but we were definitely seen as ‘inaboot-comers’,” he said.
“It was pretty hard to get to know people, so I thought I’d join the lifeboat crew.
“I’d worked at Aberdeen University for a few years and in 1968 the geography department asked me to be a member of crew on the Malcolm Millar.
“It was a schooner built at the John Lewis yard in Torry, just a couple of hundred yards from where I lived. I was only 18 years old and the two-week trip got a bit stormy but I really enjoyed it, well eventually.”
When he moved to Stonehaven, George was working for NCR, a leading global computer system provider, which meant he often worked away in London and the States, as well as spells working in Germany, Spain and France.
This didn’t stop him learning what he needed to know to work on the lifeboat crew, and start saving lives at sea.
“I’ve been on the shore crew, I’ve been the tractor driver and the head launcher, as well as on the boat crew,” he said.
“Teamwork is so important and so is learning the ropes. Every time the lifeboat goes out, we do the same things in the same order, every time.
“Launch and recovery are really important safety-wise. A lot of accidents happen when the lifeboat is being launched or coming back in.
“Nowadays, a volunteer has to complete between six months and a year’s probation as shore crew, before they can join the boat crew.
“The level of training the RNLI offers is second to none. It really is so professional.”
This isn’t to say things were always as high-tech when it came to calling out the crew.
“When I started, we had a D-class inshore boat with a single 30 horse power engine, and you had to provide all your own equipment, apart from lifejackets,” said George.
“Very few people had phones in their homes so when there was a call-out, they fired rockets into the sky.
“You’d hear the ‘boom, boom’ and off you’d head to the shed. And there weren’t many cars back then either so we’d run down, or take our bikes.
“I distinctly remember the honorary secretary’s pride in being one of the first people in his neighbourhood to get a phone line, on account of his position.
“When phones became more common, we’d get three rings on the phone and we knew that was our signal to head down to the shed.
“We launched out of the old shed at this point, down at the end of Shorehead. We had to physically lift the boat onto the trolley and then push it down, held on a piece of rope, to launch it.
“Now we have a special tractor to tow the boat down and launch from the harbour sand.”
On the water
Over the years, George has taken part in many rescues. Some of these have been successful while others have had more tragic outcomes. He remembers these with obvious pain, especially when he has been called out to rescue someone local, someone he has perhaps known.
But the volunteer crew approaches every call-out with the same level of professionalism and bravery, being on call 365 days a year.
And there can be danger in the most unexpected places. George remembers being out on the boat, where they were practising lowering a person into a very small boat from a helicopter.
“When you’re winching someone down, you let the wire below them go into the water to discharge the static electricity that’s built up.
“It’s pretty dangerous and we’re trained in carrying out the operation. But on this occasion, the winch person reached out and touched the person before the wire hit the water.
“The force of the charge threw them out of the boat into the water. It was quite something to witness.
“They were absolutely fine, but it was a salutary lesson in why we have procedures and why we follow them.”
The RNLI works very closely with the coastguard, on operations as well as on training exercises.
George describes them as “buddies” but this doesn’t mean there hasn’t sometimes been tension.
He recalls a particular call-out when two young German tourists had gone into the sea in their swimsuits but they’d been pulled out to sea. The ladies had got themselves out onto the cliffs, climbed up a little way but had then been stranded there.
“We were launched, and the coastguard was also called out. They were at the top of the cliffs with ropes, and we were in the sea at the bottom of the rocks.
“The young ladies were made safe, and we said we were more than happy for them to be lowered onto the boat. The coastguard was adamant that they were equally happy to take them up and rescue them.
“Needless to say, they won that argument and we never got to meet the young ladies.”
Having been medically retired from NCR at 48 years old, George started a second career as a janitor at Mearns Academy where he worked happily for another decade.
His wife Liz was a senior nurse at the Woodcot hospital before it closed in 1998, and his son and daughter both took up careers in the caring professions. All still live in Stonehaven, and George is a proud grandfather to two granddaughters.
He was also a flight lieutenant with the Stonehaven Air Cadets, being made an MBE in 1992 for his service to the organisation.
As he steps down his RNLI duties, he looks back on the time with fondness.
“We have a super duper fast boat now (an Atlantic 85 B-class Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) with twin 115hp engines), and everyone is kitted out in fitted drysuits, helmets and gloves.
“We used to sit on a mattress on the deck of the old boat, which quickly got very wet and very cold.
“The training is second to none, and so professional. But what’s still exactly the same is the camaraderie.
“On a lifeboat, you have to trust your team, and the crew is like a family.
“We have about 30 people on the team, one of them is a neighbour three doors down and one of the DLAs (deputy launch authority) is three doors past that.
“Stonehaven is a small town, everyone knows everyone and it’s great to be part of the community and do your bit.
“No matter how advanced technology gets, our crew is always there and prepared to be out there saving lives at sea. The boats can get to places that no amount of helicopters can reach.
“Lifeboats will always be needed.”
Key facts about the RNLI
The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.