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Leigh Hanks retires as RNLI Station Mechanic at Ilfracombe

Lifeboats News Release

After 37 years as a volunteer crew member with Ilfracombe RNLI, and the past 13 years as the full-time mechanic, Leigh Hanks retired this week.


Leigh in his role as Helm of the inshore lifeboat

Boats have always been a big part of Leigh Hanks’ life. As a child, in Essex, he and his father launched their 16 feet open boat and went netting before school, seeing what sort of a catch they had in their huge nets. If there were fish, they put up a white post in the front garden to let villagers know and when Leigh got back from school, he’d make the fish deliveries on his bicycle. The family moved to Ilfracombe but Leigh found himself as far from the sea as you can get in England when he went to Birmingham to study.

After four years so far from the sea, when he joined his family in Ilfracombe, he decided to join the RNLI to get back alongside boats. He started in April 1991 as shore crew, assisting the lifeboats to launch and recover.

He then joined the boat crew and five years later became the emergency mechanic. There have been many changes in the 37 years since Leigh joined as volunteer. The Alec Dykes D class inshore lifeboat arrived at the station in 1992 beginning the era of the smaller manoeuvrable lifeboat taking on much of the rescue work on our rugged coast. The new boathouse and opened in 1996 and the Mersey class Spirit of Derbyshire, which had only been in Ilfracombe for a year when Leigh arrived, was replaced by the ultra-modern Shannon class all-weather lifeboat in 2015. However “the biggest difference”, Leigh says he has witnessed, “is the number of crew. When I started all the crew lived and worked right on or by the harbour so when there was a shout, they were all already here. Now, we need a much larger pool of volunteers as they are spread throughout the town and not everyone can get here. And it is so much busier now.”

In 2003, he became Deputy Second Coxswain to Andrew Putt who had become Coxswain in 1992, taking over from David Clements and in 2010 (on a very auspicious date – the 13th of the 9th), he took on the job of full-time mechanic with his great friend Andrew Bengey becoming Coxswain in the same year.

For the last 13 years Leigh’s calm, patient presence has been a key part of life in the lifeboat station. And he knows everything. When anyone asks a question ‘ask Leigh, he’ll know’ is invariably the response.

“I have loved the job.” Leigh says. “You genuinely never know what will happen next. I am part engineer, part office manager, part agony aunt for the crew. We are a great crew – you would never put this great variety of people together in any other situation but, when we need to, we make a great team! I make a plan for the day but you know the plan will never happen, there’s always something else that crops up.”

“The only lonely time in the job”, he says “is when the pagers go off for a shout. I am here already so there is nothing for me to do but wait. I open the doors ready and wait more. Time goes slowly. Bit of course, suddenly all the crew is here and we can launch the lifeboat.”

But Leigh also recognises that 37 years living with the pager has also meant sacrifices and it is now time to spend more time with his family. “No-one could have been more supportive than my wife and family”, he says. “I couldn’t have asked for more from them. None of us could do this without the support of our families, but now my family is going to enjoy some time without the pager”.

Leigh is not leaving boats, however. He already has a summer of being on the dive boat, The Obsession, planned for himself.

"I know I am leaving the station safe hands. And I will see them on the water. I just hope they won't be coming to rescue me!"

And can he resist coming back one day as a volunteer? Is he leaving that door a little open? “My last training launch was on the all-weather lifeboat”, he says. “And that is always good, but my real love is the inshore lifeboat. It would be good to be in that boat crew again. Maybe after a break. One day perhaps…”


During the arrival of the Shannon class lifeboat


Next to the Shannon which coincidentally bore the date he started his job - 1309


Leigh as a new recruit


Leigh on the all-weather lifeboat his last training exercise before retirement


Leigh on the all-weather lifeboat his last training exercise before retirement

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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