From fighting fires to saving lives at sea – meet Portsmouth RNLI’s new helm
Portsmouth RNLI crew member Rob Gargaro is used to saving lives during his day job as a fire-fighter, but now he will be saving lives in his spare time too - after qualifying as a B class lifeboat helm at the station.
As an RNLI lifeboat volunteer and a Crew Manager for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, Rob has a strong commitment to helping others. He has only been with the charity that saves lives at sea for four years, but now has passed all his helm training – meaning he can ‘drive’ the station’s B class lifeboat Norma T when the emergency call comes.
The B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat is one of the fastest in the RNLI’s fleet with a top speed of 35 knots and capable of tackling challenging sea conditions including force 7 near gale winds. It will be Rob’s job to make sure everyone who goes out to sea returns to shore safely.
Rob’s journey with the RNLI started in 2018 when he joined the Portsmouth Lifeboat Station as shore crew. In this first volunteering role, Rob helped with the launch and recovery of the lifeboats on service or exercise and contributed to the overall upkeep of the station. He then progressed to boat crew operating on the lifeboat during rescues, and helm for the D class lifeboat. Now he’s in command of the station’s larger B class lifeboat.
‘I went past the Portsmouth RNLI building one day and I spoke with the volunteer helm who was working on the tractor just outside the station. A few days after, I went to one of their crew exercises, and that is how I started my adventure with the RNLI,’ Rob said.
As a helm, Gargaro’s main responsibility is to ensure that the crew members are safe and ready to conduct the lifesaving operations. ‘There are many facets to the role of helm, but my main concern is to keep everyone in the lifeboat safe and ensure that we all come back together soundly,’ he added.
Rob’s day job is as an Operational Crew Manager in the Fire and Rescue Service where he resolves operational incidents and teaches firefighters how to operate the rescue and firefighting equipment. A lot of the skills he uses in his role transfer across the abilities he needs to be in command of the lifeboat crew.
‘As a helm, I draw on the skills I use in the Fire and Rescue Service quite heavily. But equally, there are some things I have never done before, so preparing myself as best as possible is especially important. You can find yourself in unpredictable situations at sea and sometimes you are under highly stressful circumstances.
The training is challenging, but very well structured. And it is a testament to not only the RNLI trainers in Poole, but the other helms at Portsmouth Lifeboat Station as well, who set realistic training scenarios to allow me to become a better helm and lifeboatmen,’ Rob explained.
Over the four years volunteering with the RNLI, the newly appointed helm has been on many calls, but one of the most memorable is the rescue of a little fishing boat whose engine had broken down. The vessel was drifting into the main shipping channel from Portsmouth Harbour.
Talking about the incident, Rob said:
‘One of the chaps on the fishing boat had tried to retrieve the anchor and fallen into the water. As we strived to get him back on the boat, the Cross Channel ferry was coming toward us. I could see this big ship slowly approaching and felt how its size weighed on us.
That was a challenging rescue because many things were happening at once - the casualty who fell in the water was cold and in shock, so we had to make sure he was well, while the fishing boat with the other person on board was drifting in the shipping channel.
This is one of those moments that stuck with me because of the vision of the ferry coming toward us. We had to move quickly to bring the two chaps and their fishing boat to safety.’
The RNLI volunteers are on call 24/7, 365 days of the year, which can put pressure on their personal life. When the pager goes off, the crew is called away from family, their beds, and jobs at any time of the day and night. For Rob, managing his schedule and availability are the biggest challenges he faces. Still, his family is his greatest motivation:
‘You may want to go out somewhere or do something, and then the pager goes off. That is a sacrifice that not only I make, but my wife and children too. But why do I do this? Because I want to help others and make my family proud. I want my children to say, 'that is my dad'.’
From previously working in the Royal Navy, to becoming a RNLI crew and helm for the two inshore boats at Portsmouth Lifeboat Station, and spending his downtime on his private boat, Rob loves being on and around water. Yet, what he enjoys the most is being part of a group of like-minded people.
Speaking about his experience, Rob said:
‘During my career, I have always been part of teams that shared a collective aim. The RNLI carries many of those same values and vision - to work together to save people's lives at sea. I find that really fulfilling.
We are all part of a family at the Portsmouth station, and we look after each other. As a crew, we work towards the same goal, and outside the station, we have fun together. So not only do we go out on a rescue and train, but we also socialise and meet with our families.’
Richard Butler, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Portsmouth Lifeboat Station, said:
‘I wish to send my appreciation to the team who take on a stunning workload to keep the station successfully running. From the Lifeboat Training Coordinator, who puts the course content together, to the Lifeboat Training Assessor, who ensures prompt assessments, and the crew’s commitment to being on call when needed, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
In my six months with the RNLI, I watched Rob show dedication, motivation, and work ethic, and he has been a role model for me. He is well respected by all the station members and has achieved an incredible feat in most challenging times, making his efforts even more impressive.
A most sincere ‘thank you’ to Rob and the team that helped him achieve this new milestone. I look forward to collaborating with the crew with the same rigorous ethic to continue developing Portsmouth Lifeboat station’s lifesaving capabilities.’
Portsmouth Lifeboat Station has been providing search and rescue for the eastern Solent since 1965. The crews have won two medals for gallantry and currently operate two inshore lifeboats - a D class lifeboat named The Dennis Faro and an Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Norma T.
In 2021, Portsmouth Lifeboat Crew had 54 launches, saved 5 lives, and aided 46 people.
Notes to editors
- To learn more about Portsmouth Lifeboat Station go to: https://rnli.org/find-my-nearest/lifeboat-stations/portsmouth-lifeboat-station
- The Atlantic 85 lifeboat is named after Atlantic College in Wales where these rigid inflatable lifeboats (RIBs) were first developed. 85 stands for the length of the lifeboat – 8.5m. Introduced into the fleet in 2005, the Atlantic 85 is the third generation of B class lifeboat. To learn more about the RNLI lifeboats go to: https://rnli.org/what-we-do/lifeboats-and-stations/our-lifeboat-fleet
RNLI media contacts
For more information, please contact Simona Matache, RNLI South East Media Placement, on 0779 0772665 or email [email protected], or Paul Dunt, RNLI South East Regional Media Officer, on 0778 5296252 or email [email protected], or the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336 789 or email [email protected]. Alternatively, please call the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336 789 or 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 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.
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.
Learn more about the RNLI
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