‘An all-female lifeboat crew? I don’t see why not…’
Female volunteers from Hunstanton Lifeboat Station share their stories for International Women’s Day.
Tucked away on the west Norfolk coast lies the seaside resort of Hunstanton. Much like the RNLI, it has its origins in the early 19th century. And like the modern RNLI, its now leading the way in the representation of women in lifesaving.
Hunstanton currently has 10 female volunteers in various operational roles, both afloat and ashore, from a total of 39 - a high proportion compared to some stations but by no means unheard of. A little further around the coast, Happisburgh and Aldeburgh can boast similar numbers.
Joanne Jutsum is one of the newest to join. As a Deputy Launch Authority (DLA), Joanne has one of the biggest responsibilities on the station. She takes the initial call from the Coastguard, decides whether to launch, and if so which of the station’s assets to deploy. Away from the RNLI, she’s a company director in the retail sector.
“I’m a diver and sailor, so wanted to give something back and use my knowledge to help’ says Joanne. ‘It took a little time to feel like part of the team, but everyone has been really supportive and kind. My proudest moment to date was handling my shout without supervision. We rescued 16 people that day.’
The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #ChooseToChallenge. ‘I don’t see that as being about challenging the men on station’ says Hannah Torrice, a radiographer by profession, the fourth generation of her family to join the Hunstanton crew and the first woman. ‘For me it’s about choosing to challenge myself by pushing me out of my comfort zone and increased my people skills. And perhaps challenging the old-fashioned perception of a lifeboatman’.
Hunstanton is used to playing a pioneering role within the RNLI. It’s one of only four stations across the UK and Ireland to count a hovercraft among its lifesaving assets, perfect for tackling the vast mud flats and sand banks exposed at low tide where most of the station’s rescues occur. Among the Hunstanton Flyer’s crew are two pioneers in their own right. Leesa Espley, the first female hovercraft pilot in the RNLI, who juggles volunteering with being a supply teacher, retained fire fighter and a mum, and Charlie Parfitt, the RNLI’s first female Hovercraft Commander:
‘I joined the station when I moved to Hunstanton. As a powerboat instructor and lifeguard I wanted to use my experience to help others. One of the things I love most about being part of the crew is that every time we’re called out, we’re faced with new challenges and work together to solve them.”
Leesa adds: ‘I’d always been interested in life saving. In 2003 I had laser surgery on my eyes to enable me to reach the standard required to join the RNLI as a crew member. Since having my daughter in 2008 I’ve had to juggle home life with training and call outs, but it’s been worth it. I felt so proud to be the first woman to hold a hovercraft pilot licence, and to be chosen to crew one of the safety boats at the London Olympics sailing event.’
Women are performing every available role at Hunstanton, bringing a range of professional experience to the charity. Kate Craven, a Sales Manager, runs the station’s education programme; Sam Pratt works for a local Funeral Service and is a Community Safety Officer and part of the Shore Crew; Rachael Follows is a Clinical Advisor and Trainee DLA; Terri Lucas works at a Joinery and pilots the Hovercraft; Clare Kyle is a delivery driver and one of the station’s mechanics; while Megan Watson is a student and joined the Shore Crew after completing her Duke of Edinburgh award on station.
Women have played a key role in the RNLI’s success since its formation in 1824 – from famous lifesavers like Grace Darling to behind the scenes roles raising funds to keep the charity afloat. And representation has improved hugely since 1969, when Elisabeth Hostvedt became the first fully qualified woman on a lifeboat crew.
‘There’s more work to do,’ says Sue Kingswood, RNLI Inclusion and Diversity Manager. ‘We’re working to make sure that when people do come forward to volunteer or work at the RNLI, they’re made to feel welcome and stay. What we’re doing to encourage greater representation of women is a microcosm of what we need to do to get people with diverse experiences and perspectives joining the RNLI.’
So, could we ever see an all-female lifeboat crew?
‘I don’t see why not’ says Joanne Jutsum. ‘Don’t get me wrong, we have some great guys here at Hunstanton and I love working with them, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t happen one day. We certainly have the skills, the courage and the support of our organisation to succeed.’
· Interviews are available via phone, Skype, or Microsoft Teams. Please contact RNLI Regional Media Manager Jim Rice on 07810 658072 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange. Alternatively, contact the press office on 01202 336789 or email@example.com
· The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations around the coast of the UK and Ireland, and they continue to launch to those in peril at sea throughout the pandemic.
· To support the RNLI’s lifesavers, go to: rnli.org/donate
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.