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
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.
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
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