Friday, January 25, 2013

The Right Stuff

Third (and probably) final excerpt from A Year of Doing Good . I tried to join the lifeboat crew - for some reason they wouldn't have me.

Tuesday, 10 May

I walked into the lifeboat station past the little shop selling model lifeboats and teddies, then along a metal gallery; to the right there are crew rooms, and to the left the space drops away to the boathouse where the lifeboat sits in dry dock looking huge and orange and brave. Wooden plaques line the walls with the names and years of the former lifeboats and coxswains and all the rescues that the lifeboat has gone out on. A bearded chap who helps launch the boats took me through to the room where the lifeboat men were gathered. They were ranged in seats around the room chatting to each other, and silence fell as I walked in, which was the right moment to be a foot taller and ten years younger with a willy to call my own.

The operations manager was lovely and cuddly, like a cut-outand- keep grandad, but he wasn’t exactly biting my hand off. I may not be the ideal candidate. A five-foot-two, forty-something woman isn’t exactly poster material for the lifeboat crew. Grandad starts talking about training and the sea survival test you have to go through at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Poole where they throw you into a tank of choppy water and see if you drown. Physically, I’m not sure I’m up to it. I’m a terrible swimmer with a bad back and a tendency to migraine. I’m short-sighted and I never lift anything heavier than my handbag or a glass of Chablis. I wouldn’t want to get to someone who needed rescuing in a stormy sea, decide, ‘Do you know what – that looks like far too much trouble,’ lean over the boat and, instead of reaching down a hand, shout into the wind, ‘Any last words? I’ll be sure to pass them on.’ But I can’t blink. I’m here to join the lifeboat crew. Grandad meets me halfway. He offers me a ride.

First things first. I climb into the yellow rubberized boots and trousers and enormous jacket. The trousers aren’t too bad because the boots stop them trailing on the ground, but the boots must be at least two to three sizes too big, which means I have to throw one leg up into the air to clear the boot before it comes to rest on the ground, then throw the other up in the air to keep the momentum going. Another woman turns up, a young teacher in the local high school, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I am immediately less of an oddity.

We walk from the gallery straight onto the boat deck before the boat trundles out of the boathouse pulled by a tractor. I am jacketed and booted and helmeted. The tourists lining the harbour taking pictures are firmly of the opinion I am a hero. A short hero, admittedly, but a hero nonetheless. One of the guys I am standing next to is six foot five if he is an inch, and I move away from him because he is making me look teeny-tiny. My fellow female lifeguard kneels by a massive metal chain, which is held in place by a metal bracket. When the alarm sounds, you hit the bracket with the hammer as hard as you can, the bracket lifts, the chain falls away and the boat slides from its metal bed parked on the slipway and into the sea. The only problem is there are two chains and two brackets. I kneel by the other chain, take the hammer from its box and raise it over the bracket. The vision of one chain falling from the boat while I repeatedly bash away at my bracket as the boat lists to one side and lifeboat men fall from its deck like passengers from the Titanic starts playing on the YouTube channel that is my brain. The alarm goes, and I hammer the bracket so hard I’m lucky I do not go through the plank beneath. Suddenly we are in the water. The helmsman guns the boat and it begins to plane, its pointy bit raised at a thirty-degree angle as it cuts through the water. The training exercise involves taking the boat across to Holy Island, opening up the engine, practising tying her up at the harbour and checking the shifting sandbars. Occasionally, spray hits me across the face and I try not to mind, like a real hero. The sea cuts Holy Island off from the mainland twice a day, flooding its causeway and occasionally catching strangers and the certifiably stupid off-guard. Only the month before, a car with four adults, two children and a dog had to be rescued by the lifeboat as they attempted to cross the causeway against the tide times.

I wonder why they do it. I’m out with a crew of seven and there are twenty-four volunteers in the village, including the chap who owns the crazy golf course, an IT technician, a college lecturer, a teacher, a plasterer, a plumber, a welder, a barman, a BT engineer, a few boatmen and one fisherman. I understand the boatmen and the fisherman, but everyone else? Why do they put their lives on the line? Because that’s what you do. They help the divers who get the bends or who push themselves too hard and run into trouble, surfers who get too ambitious, motorists who get caught out – like the man who took a drink too many one night and parked his van where the tide came in and was plucked from the roof of his van dressed only in his pants and shame. Occasionally, tragically, there are bodies; more often there are rescues.

I enjoy the sea journey out to the island; the problem comes when we moor. The boat is tied up against the harbour wall and a wet iron ladder set against it. We are distinctly lower than I would like us to be. I eye the ladder distrustfully and wonder whether, if I slip between the lifeboat and the lichened wall, I would be pressed flat and dead or would instead slide straight down into the waiting waters and drown beneath the boat. I sling my leg with its oversized boot over the side of the boat, step into oblivion and hope desperately that somewhere my boot will find a rung. I immediately start to dread climbing back in.

I climb up and down the ladders from hell three times: once onto the island, where we stretch our legs; once off the island back onto the boat; and one final time from the boat back into harbour, which is the very worst time, and I am certain I am not the only one envisaging me slipping between the boat and the dock. Still, there is the consolation of the admiring glances of spectators. It is almost enough consolation for having to heft two of the heavy rubber skids that the boat slides up stern-first out of the water and onto its carriage. These are so heavy, I can barely lift them off the ground let alone into the trailer to clear them away once the boat is free of them. I am useless at shifting the rubber beams but, given a hose, I excel at washing the saltwater off the lifeboat. This has to be the biggest thing I have ever washed. It just doesn’t make me look much like a hero.

1 comment:

Claire said...

Now look what you've gone and started ...

Good deed no. 1 : let every motorist out in front of me from sideroads whilst taking son to school.

Easier than joining a lifeboat crew but maybe not quite as exciting