Faces of the RNLI: How island life inspires RNLI volunteer Leafy

Muddy creeks and coastal marshlands make up the landscape surrounding West Mersea RNLI with its three inhabited islands, Osea, Mersea and Northey, cut off from the mainland when the tide rises.
Leafy Dumas by Jack Lowe

Photo: Jack Lowe

The atmosphere of the islands in north Essex has been a daily source of inspiration for RNLI volunteer, local artist, illustrator and yachtswoman Leafy Dumas.

Leafy has been part of the team at West Mersea Lifeboat Station, one of the RNLI’s first inshore lifeboat stations since 2005 when she became a member of its lifeboat crew and later took up a new role as a Lifeboat Press Officer (LPO).

A keen yachtswoman, Leafy was ideally suited to rescue operations but in recent years failed the eyesight part of the medical which she says was ‘a huge disappointment’.

‘I love the rough weather and enjoyed every minute. It was not possible to feel anxious during rescues because we have such great kit and lifeboats.’

But she adds: ‘As a crew member it did sometimes put me off sailing and thinking about going on an adventure because you realise how much can actually go wrong when you are out on the water.’

Leafy was christened Alethea by her parents, both experienced sailors. Her late father, Jeremy Dumas, was originally the Lifeboat Operations Manager at West Mersea and formerly a Deputy Launching Authority. 

As a child she lived a nomadic life in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the Caribbean. ‘My father was in the army so we moved to a different place every few years.’ Moving around did not stop her from following her love of art and she graduated from Exeter College of Art with a First Class Honours degree.

Speaking just after a busy and successful open weekend in her art studio next to the lifeboat station, she says that she is ideally placed to help out if there is a shout because she is right on the doorstep.

‘My pager went off during the open weekend and I would normally set off to see the launch and help out where needed, but I wasn’t able to on this occasion as I was busy attending to visitors.’

As an LPO she looks after the station’s social media and writes about news and operations for the local press. In May last year she looked after Blast!, the film crew responsible for the popular BBC documentary, Saving Lives at Sea. Filming took place around the station and covered shouts over the week.

‘One of the most interesting rescues featured a man who had come down from London with a life raft hoping for some peace and quiet but then ended up drifting out into the North Sea. Fortunately, he could still get a signal on his mobile phone and was able to call 999 and was then rescued by the lifeboat crew.’

West Mersea, with its easy access from London, attracts the crowds in the summer months when the need for rescues and assistance for day trippers increases. The winter months are quieter. 

Said Leafy: ‘It’s a nice day out for everyone.’ Near to the lifeboat station and Leafy’s studio, where she sells her postcards and art work, is the famous fish and seafood restaurant, The Company Shed, selling everything from jellied eels to dressed crab with a bring your own wine and bread option. 

The tidal patterns mean that sometimes vehicles get caught out and end up stuck on one of the three causeways to the islands. 

‘The fire brigade now wade out to assist if they can with the lifeboat crew assisting with more serious incidents.’ 

She says she has been on many memorable shouts but recounts the time when she had just completed her first aid course and they were called to the rescue of a man who was having a heart attack on a Thames barge near Maldon.

‘We were the first on the scene and he was later airlifted to hospital. I especially remember helping his wife find their car after we had taken her ashore. We walked for miles searching every carpark (the husband who had been airlifted to hospital had parked the car).

‘It was baking hot weather and I was wearing my RNLI drysuit and woolly bear - the only thing I had - we eventually found her car and I went with her, sweltering in my drysuit, all the way to Colchester Hospital. The lifeboat had had to leave Maldon without me on the ebb tide.   

‘Her husband survived and later he came to see us and made a donation to RNLI funds.’