The RNLI: The lifesavers of the sea
PUBLISHED: 11:48 07 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:48 07 August 2018
Britain has always been at the mercy of the sea and the Bristol Channel is particularly hazardous with fierce tides, shallow banks and dangerous low tide mudflats, as Andrea Cowan discovers
Despite the introduction of lighthouses and fog horns to help ships safely navigate the coast, in the early 19th century there was still an average of 1,800 shipwrecks a year.
In 1824 the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded by Sir William Hillary.
It was subsequently renamed the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1854 and so began a long and proud tradition of saving lives: 139,000 lives to date according to the RNLI, at an estimated cost of £485,000 a day nationally (in 2016).
The RNLI has 235 operational stations around the UK and Ireland, the busiest of which is based on the Thames at Tower. There are four official stations in Somerset at Minehead, Portishead, Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea with state-of-the-art, fully equipped lifeboats operated by volunteer crews, including small D class inflatable lifeboats for rescues closer to the shore and among rocks and B class rigid inflatable lifeboats (either an Atlantic 75 or 85) for general work, reaching great speeds in strong gale force winds.
The crew might be voluntary, but its dedication and commitment is highly professional. As well as the boat and shore crew, each station is supported in the background by a team of admin and shops staff, as well as fundraisers.
For all the stations there is a close working relationship with other services including the Maritime Coastguard Agency, Avon Fire and Rescue Service, Avon and Somerset Constabulary, Great Weston Air Ambulance and the Hazard Area Response Team (HART).
The lifeboat stations:
Previously the Portishead Lifeboat Trust, the station has been operational as RNLI since 2015.
With 39 boat and shore crew combined, it covers Weston-super-Mare across the channel to the Welsh Coast, up to the old Severn Bridge and into Bristol down the River Avon, utilising the station’s Atlantic 85 class lifeboat, My Lady Anne.
The type of equipment on board includes radar, electronic navigation, night vision, search lights, first aid and oxygen.
Rescues also extend to animals, because if a pet gets into trouble nine times out of 10 the owner will go into the water after them.
The station was opened in 1901 and is now responsible for providing rescue cover along some 30 miles of the Somerset and Devon coastline from Lynmouth in the west to Hinkley Point in the east.
It has both an Atlantic 85 class and a smaller D class boat. In 2017 the team responded to 44 emergency calls, the highest ever total with, as usual, a large proportion of those to people either cut off by the tide or who had failed to take account of the speed of the tide when going out in a kayak or for a swim.
The station is also used to bringing injured fishermen or ship’s crew ashore, searching for missing persons, or towing in broken down motor boats.
Burnham-On-Sea has been operational since 2003 and is crewed by around 30 volunteer boat crew, shore crew and officers, covering from the south side of Brean Down to halfway to Minehead, incorporating Hinkley Point construction site.
The station has a B class Atlantic 75 and a D class lifeboat. Last year the team experienced 16 launches, three of which were to assist bomb disposal with recovery of ordinance (explosive shells etc) uncovered during Hinkley Point ground works. They were from the part of the Bristol Channel that had been used previously for aeronautical target practice.”
The lifeboat station was opened in 1882 and covers from Clevedon to Burnham, with a crew of 35 volunteers.
The station has two lifeboats at its disposal: a D Class Anna Stock and an Atlantic 75 Coventry & Warwickshire.
The most regular call outs are to Birnbeck Island where people get trapped due to the very, very strong tides.
A shingle bank, exposed at every low tide, connects the island to the mainland. But the tide comes in with ferocity and very soon the shingle bank is covered and victims are cut off.