Earlier today I walked the gangplank for a visit to the Tower RNLI lifeboat station, one of four situated along the River Thames.
First, a little background about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) itself – formed in 1824, the RNLI is ‘the charity that saves lives at sea’. Completely independent of Government and funded solely by donations, it is mostly a volunteer-led organisation that operates 344 duty lifeboats out of 236 stations around the coast of the United Kingdom and Ireland. In recent years they’ve also added 180 beaches to their roster, where RNLI lifeguards patrol as part of the organisation’s programme of prevention and education, and there is now a highly-trained flood rescue team which responds to the increasing number of serious flash floods on inland waterways.
The charity operates both all-weather vessels (which can travel up to 100 nautical miles out from the coast) and smaller in-shore lifeboats which are generally used to respond to the so-called ‘recreational’ incidents which make up 70% of the organisation’s workload. These call-outs (or ‘shouts’ as they are known) can involve anything from tourists being washed out to sea on their pedalos to rescuing people who have fallen from clifftops. In 2012 the RNLI launched their lifeboats 8321 times (roughly 23 times a day), rescuing 7912 individuals.
Now if I was to ask you which lifeboat station saw the most action over the year, I suspect you might mention somewhere out on the rugged coasts of the Highlands or perhaps one of the stations involved in rescuing people from the busy shipping lanes in the English Channel. The truth is actually rather more mundane – the busiest RNLI station in the country is Tower, right in the heart of London.
Able to launch one of its three water-jet powered E-class lifeboats (the newest of which is capable of travelling at 40 knots – one of the fastest vessels on the Thames) in sixty to ninety seconds, the Tower RNLI station is manned by nine full-time ‘helms’ and another forty-six volunteers who work in twelve-hour shifts – this allows them to respond to emergencies twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2012 crews from Tower station were called out 499 times and spent over 900 hours out on the water. Unlike their coastal counterparts, about fifty percent of their work deals with people who have jumped or fallen into the river whether through unfortunate accidents, due to the effects of drink or drugs or, sadly, because they are feeling suicidal. Its important that the crews get to these victims quickly because despite its calm-looking surface the Thames is probably the country’s most dangerous waterway – at high tide with the water flowing out to sea the Thames can be coursing under London’s bridges at eight, or in some cases ten, knots. This means that someone who fell into the river at Westminster Bridge could be past Waterloo and almost at Blackfriars in less than five minutes…
Of the remaining fifty percent of their work at the Tower RNLI station, most involves responding to medical emergencies on vessels going up and down the river or on areas of the riverbank that are inaccessible to vehicles. All lifeboat volunteers undertake extremely rigorous first aid training so that they can respond effectively to these kinds of incidents, but it is not at all uncommon for there to be a fully qualified medical professional onboard – while there are a few volunteers whose day jobs involve office-based occupations, most lifeboat-men and women who operate out of the station are Thames watermen, fire-fighters, police officers or paramedics.
You can pay a visit to the RNLI’s Tower lifeboat station for yourself – visits are free of charge but, as I’ve mentioned, they are a charitable organisation so do go along with some money in your pocket. As this is a working site visits must be booked in advance, and if you’re an individual or part of a small group expect to be folded into a larger visit – for example I spent my morning in the pleasant company of members of Harrow Baptist Church.
If you’re interested in supporting the work of the RNLI further you can become a member – there are several schemes available which you can find out about here including Stormforce, their group for kids. Being a typically 21st century London group, Tower RNLI also have their very own Twitter feed and Facebook page – check them out for updates on their activities.
Despite it’s name, the Tower RNLI station is now a few bridges down from the iconic London landmark. They operated from the public Tower Pier until 2006 when they moved to their current base on a refurbished Victorian pontoon just downstream from Waterloo Bridge, which was sold to them by the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Policing Unit (at that time called the Thames Division) for £1 in 2003. Immediately handed back to the charity as a donation, this framed pound coin still has pride of place in the training room at one end of the complex of floating buildings. The Victorian pontoon itself has a long and rather fitting heritage, as its first occupants were the Royal Humane Society. Like the site’s present-day occupants they spent much of their time rescuing unfortunate people from the treacherous waters of the Thames…