The journey of Oban RNLI’s newest volunteer crew members through a pandemic
Joining the RNLI as a lifeboat crew member is one of the most exciting and fulfilling volunteer roles around. Onboard one of Scotland’s busiest lifeboats, that’s no small commitment but in the midst of a global pandemic, like everyone else, our new recruits faced extraordinary challenges.
The assistance of Oban lifeboat is often in high demand, 2019 saw their volunteer crew launch 83 times; that’s on average 7 call outs a month. Each launch requires a crew of six including a duty coxswain and mechanic. During that year the lifeboat spent 164 hours at sea during call outs, that equates to nearly 1000 hours or 41 days of voluntary time.
The end of 2019 saw Oban lifeboat with the a team of 22 sea going volunteers along with a full time coxswain and mechanic. But, they still had a couple of spaces to fill. Ally Cerexhe, their full time coxswain said “We’re a busy station and having enough volunteers is essential to ensure we always have a crew ready and able to launch. Sometimes we can be out on a shout all day, only to return home and launch again a few hours later. It’s important that we can share the workload, all of our crew have jobs and other commitments outside of the RNLI too.”
Through an open recruitment evening, two new trainees were selected and by January 2020, Andy Lockwood and Gillies Pagan had signed up to their new volunteer roles; ones that would see them selflessly drop everything at any time to go to the aid of others.
Imagine, being woken at 3am by the high pitched sound of a pager, as a squall of driving rain and wind batters your bedroom window. You leave your snug bed, throw on some clothes, leave your loved ones behind and head out to sea on the lifeboat, in complete darkness. The stormy sea relates the experience to that of being in a washing machine but you’re in for a long night; a fishing boat requires assistance and it’s 20 miles away. You’ll probably get home as the day begins, go to work on a few hours sleep and quite possibly, do it all over again in a few hours.
Andy, who’s day job sees him skippering boats and offering powerboat instruction said “I wanted to join as I felt I had something to offer from a sailing and maritime background. Having always known the RNLI was there if I needed them, it felt right to offer something in return.“
Gillies, owner of local business Fiuran Property, explained “It felt like a good way to give something back to the community. I didn’t have a huge amount of maritime experience but I love the water and I’m pretty active so I thought I could maybe be of use. At the recruitment evening I met some of the team and had a look around the lifeboat. It was then that I decided it was something I really wanted to be a part of and luckily, I got invited back for an interview.”
No experience is necessary to volunteer for the RNLI, in fact, only 1 in 10 crew members join with a maritime background. The training the RNLI provides is world class and it ensures volunteers have all the lifesaving skills they need. Weekly exercises are undertaken at every lifeboat station year round, regardless of crew experience; the learning never stops. So, not only do crew members give up their time to respond to their pager, they also dedicate a huge amount of time to training too.
As a trainee, the journey begins with a development plan that covers all aspects of the volunteer role; from getting to know the lifeboat and the equipment she carries, to learning rope work and man overboard skills. It’s only when the entire plan has been successfully assessed that they become a fully fledged lifeboat crew member.
But, with 2020 came extraordinary challenges. Lifeboats remained on service and volunteer crews continued to risk their lives for others as a global pandemic unfolded. Along with extra PPE, additional safety measures were introduced to keep them safe and so, social contact was restricted. Stations were closed for all but essential reasons, training was put on hold and fundraising and social events cancelled.
Andy recalled “We were both signed up by January 2020, but no sooner had our paperwork come back from the RNLI’s HQ allowing us to train had everything started to grind to a halt.”
Gillies said “I remember feeling relieved to get my pager, COVID was having an impact on everything by that time and we were really luckily to get allocated at all.”
“Ally and Tom (full time mechanic) worked hard to organise training on the lifeboat when it was permitted. So we did have some time afloat before the pandemic took hold and we completed a large portion of our training in a short space of time. The RNLI also has a good online learning resource and lockdown has been a good opportunity to learn the theory side of things too.”
At a time when our day to day lives offered so much uncertainly, not only were Andy and Gillies fitting in training around their own commitments, but they also joined the rest of the volunteer crew in responding to their newly acquired pagers.
Remembering their first shouts, Andy said “I’d only had my pager a few days! It was fairly late in the evening and I remember for a brief moment thinking ‘where is that racket coming from’ before I realised and headed to the station. It was a boat taking on water, so there was some trepidation as well as excitement for me.”
Gillies said “It was a Sunday evening, I’d not long finished dinner and I remember it feeling very surreal. I responded and we launched to assist an injured walker.”
As restrictions prevailed, RNLI volunteers were among millions forced to adapt in ways they could never have imagined. Lifeboat stations traditionally offer a home away from home for their volunteers; a place to debrief and reflect after a shout and somewhere for the wider station family to gather. This was difficult for everyone but for our trainees, it posed additional challenges.
Gillies explained “Having grown up in Oban, I was fortunate that I knew a few of the crew already, but I haven’t been able to get to know everyone and that’s especially strange knowing that I could be on a serious lifesaving mission with any of them at a moment’s notice.”
“COVID has undoubtedly made the whole journey harder, but like anything else, you’ve just got to get on with it. In a way, maybe I’m fortunate not knowing what life as a lifeboat crew member was like ‘pre-Covid’. I can’t compare my experience to anything but I’m definitely looking forward to a time when restrictions ease and I can go for a beer with the crew!”
In under a year, Andy and Gillies responded to 32 and 21 shouts respectively and their initial training is close to completion. Oban Lifeboat’s Operations Manager Billy Forteith said “The commitment shown by all our volunteers both ashore and afloat, throughout this pandemic, has been outstanding. The restrictions are hard on everyone but they are necessary to keep everyone safe. Andy and Gillies have shown dedication despite challenges they’ve faced and it clearly illustrates the level of commitment required to be a lifeboat crew member.”
Reflecting on their journey so far, Andy said “It’s been amazing working with a close knit team in often challenging situations. The support from the crew has been second to none and I’m looking forward to completing my initial training and moving on to expand my roles and knowledge.”
Gillies said “There are many highly experienced volunteers on the crew so it’s great to be learning from them. The RNLI is such a well-respected organisation and as their lifeboat crews are predominantly volunteers, there’s no undue pressure. It has been quite different to how I’d imagined it would be, but that’s almost entirely due to COVID, which has changed everything for everyone.”
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.