Meet Our Newly Qualified Volunteer 2nd Coxswain Mechanic Ben Williams

After 2 1/2 years of further training and commitment we have a chat with our newly qualified volunteer 2nd Coxswain/mechanic Ben to find out what he does for the RNLI and why he does it.

Newly Qualified Volunteer 2nd Coxswain Mechanic Ben Williams standing by the lifeboat

Photo: J Miell

Hello Ben please tell me about yourself...

I’m Ben Williams newly qualified 2nd Coxswain/Mechanic here at Dover Lifeboat Station.

1. Do you have a full time job, and if so what is it?

I’m currently an HGV driver, but before that I started out as an HGV mechanic and went onto a HGV recovery driver before moving to be a HGV driver...

2. How much time each week do you give to the Dover Lifeboat Station?

During the past year, due to the Coxswain training I’ve completed I’m giving around 2 days per week, not all in one go but spread over the week. So a few hours here, an hour there etc..

3. Does your employer give you time off to do what you do?

My employer is in Whitfield but doesn’t give me time off but accepts that if I’m late in the morning due to say a  3.00am shout and not back until 8.30am then a quick text to let them know and they fully understand the situation and what I do for the RNLI. 

4. What made you decide to give up your free time to volunteer for the Dover Lifeboat Station?

It started many years ago when I wanted to be a retained fireman but didn’t live near enough to a suitable station and a friend suggested that I tried the lifeboat. It wouldn’t have been my first choice as I wasn’t a fan of boats, didn’t mind them but I was invited to the station and met with James (coxswain/mechanic) who took me through what was involved and took me out on an acquaintance trip to see if I enjoyed it and they liked me and that was 10 years ago…
You can normally tell with new crew in the first couple of weeks if they are going to like it and if they want to be there. 

5. Tell me what you do here at the Dover Lifeboat Station

I started as a crew member and worked my way up to navigator, then mechanic and now I’ve just passed my coxswain training on 2nd December and had my first two shouts already, one on Christmas eve…, a bit daunting to not have the experienced support nearby by it went well!

New recruits tend to assume that everything is glamorous as shown on TV and tend not to appreciate the non glamorous side of being a volunteer. Occasionally we have to recover the bodies of people’s  loved ones from the sea.  We also maintain the very dirty and oily bilges in the boat!

6. How much training does it take to do your role?

Training to be a coxswain has taken 2½ years and has entailed absolutely everything; all about IRPCS (Internal Regulations to Prevent Collisions at Sea) regulations for channel separation, navigation, command, boat handling etc. which overall is very comprehensive. I’d already done my mechanic training and my outside skills were of course transferable and I completed my navigator training about a year ago..
Has meant residential training at Pool, home study, on boat training. You are always training..

7. Tell me what you do on a typical “working” day here..

Average training day is arrive around 5.00pm, brew, chat, coxswain will describe who is going to sea and then prepare and be afloat around 6.30pm and spend a couple of hours out training at sea, then get back, wash the boat down, put kit away and may sometimes go a for a social drink… This is important as some of the things we see and have to deal with it helps to chat about what happened and how you feel with your crew mates. Its often a very stressful environment when you have to deal with the boat and crew and potentially what you see and all whilst often feeling pretty sea sick...

8. For crew only –Tell me about the longest shout you’ve been on?

A Belgium Fishing Trawler off Dungeness which had disappeared off radar and all contact had been lost. James was coxswain and I was mechanic. We went out on the first day for about 10 hours, back to the station for rest and refuelling for about 3 hours then went back out for another 15 hours and ended up in Boulogne as we had found a body and thought we should return it there. Because French laws are different to the UK there was a lot of police intervention and we were stuck there for about 3 hours and still with a 2 hours steam back to Dover. So in total we’d done around 25 hours all in a force 9 - 10 gale...

9. What do you enjoy the most about your role?

As an engineer I enjoy being trusted to “play around” with a £3m boat that is a technological marvel and being trusted to do the job. But mainly helping people, one example was just off Folkestone, husband and wife team where the wife was being violently sea sick. We agreed to take her off and take her back to Dover whilst her husband brought the yacht back accompanied by one of our crew members. We were going to escort the yacht back which would have taken about 2 hours but the lady decided that we leave her husband so we could get back in 20mins! All she wanted to do when we got back was to sell the yacht!

10. Is there anything you don’t enjoy about your role?

As people know we have been rescuing people in the Channel for some time now and I hate it when you see comments slagging the RNLI off, when they have no idea what’s actually going on out there. Also going to body recoveries is horrible, but you have to deal with it, you have to distance yourself from what you are seeing and handling, but you have to remind yourself that you are giving the family their loved one back so they can have a funeral and have closure.

11. What do you find the most rewarding in your role?

When you’ve saved someone’s property from being smashed on the rocks. The look of relief on peoples faces when you step onboard to help them and they almost seem to give up as they had been living on adrenalin before – its like “they’re here now, we’re safe”– you sometimes see it on peoples faces on Saving Lives at Sea...

12. Have you had any funny moments?

Far too many to mention….

13. What do you get from volunteering for the RNLI, and why?

Camaraderie of being part of team, giving something back to the community whilst enjoying yourself, the satisfaction of helping people..making a difference to their life...

14. What do your friends and family think about what you do?

Family could not be more proud of me. Friends can be a little jealous and often find it quite bizarre that we do it all for nothing… 

15. Do you have any other family members in the RNLI and if so what do they do?

No just me...

16. What would you change if you were able to?

Nothing, if we were paid it would become more of a job and the culture would change and that would be wrong….

17. What do you do in your spare time and do you have any hobbies?

Motor racing, started with motor cross on bikes moved over to cars, at Lydden, Castle Coombe, Brands Hatch etc.  meeting up with my dad when I can as he’s in Cambridge. Tinkering with cars, engines and being here for the RNLI.


Andy Milton - Tel: 07977 439720 and email [email protected]

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 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and 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.

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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.