In the early hours of August 20, 1989, the River Thames party boat Marchioness was boarded by a large group of revelers. The evening was warm and still—ideal conditions for the happy Londoners gathered for a birthday celebration. With everyone aboard, a staff of two opened the bar and got the music started, while the ship’s crew got the boat off the dock for what promised to be a wonderful night out on the water. Within half an hour, though, the Marchioness was overtaken by the dredger Bowbelle and struck near the stern. She turned hard to port and Bowbelle struck her a second time, tipping the party boat on her side and riding directly over her. A nearby vessel came to the assistance of passengers in the water, and the police were called to the scene. But the boat sank, stern first, in less than a minute. Twenty-four bodies were later recovered. The incident still haunts the survivors, friends and relatives of the deceased and lingers in the memories of the British people.
A long, contentious and inconclusive investigation of the accident followed. There was consensus on only one thing: The highly trafficked River Thames needed a dedicated search and rescue team.
Today, there are four lifeboat stations near London—at Tower, Chiswick,
Gravesend and Teddington. These river stations are permanently staffed because many will try to have a crew afloat within 90 seconds of being notified of an incident. If this seems remarkable, consider that these are all stations of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), an organization that is 95 percent volunteer run.
Founded in 1824, the RNLI has 238 lifeboat stations, covering 19,000 miles of coastline around the UK and Ireland; in addition to the four stations on the Thames, there are another four inland lifeboat stations. The organization, which is entirely funded by charitable donations, provides rescue lifeboats, seasonal lifeguard service, flood response and coastal safety, research and educational programs.
Fewer than 1 in 10 of the volunteers comes from a maritime profession, which means if you get into trouble in UK waters, you are very likely to be saved by an architect, a dentist, a teacher or a mechanic. That’s why the RNLI provides rigorous and continuous training for its volunteers.
Gunnar Christiansen moved to London with his family in 2016 and joined the Teddington RNLI station.
“We were new to the neighborhood. I was passing the lifeboat station and saw some volunteers hanging out and thought, that looks like a cool thing to do,” says Christiansen. He lived within three minutes of the station, so he was eligible to volunteer. Even though he already had a 500-ton USCG Master’s license, he has been very impressed by his training.
“We don’t have anything like this at home,” he says. “There are a lot of boxes to check as you work your way up and until you check all of them, you’re considered a trainee. You start as Shore crew, learning to launch a boat for a rescue, then join a Boat crew and can eventually reach Helm.”
Along the way, there are constant drills and assessments, improving and testing not only volunteer skills but emergency acumen. RNLI headquarters in Poole, Dorset, sets these high standards and implements the training. The Poole facility also provides accommodations, classrooms and distance-learning resources and has a state-of-the-art lifeboat simulator, sea-survival pool and engine workshop. Crew receive training that costs an average of more than $2,000 per person, per year.
The RNLI has a fleet of specially built rescue craft. One hundred and sixty of these are from five classes of all-weather lifeboats, capable of high speed in offshore conditions, safe operation in all weather and self-righting after capsize. These are designed, built and maintained in Poole. There are also 264 inshore lifeboats from four classes—for rescues in shallow waters, surf and near rocks—and seven hovercraft. The RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre in Cowes on the Isle of Wight supplies and maintains most of these.
Volunteers, yes. But they are well-equipped, well-trained and well-funded. Lifeboat crew may answer a “shout” that takes them at any hour of day or night to rescue a stricken vessel in foul weather with injured crew aboard, to help coastal walkers caught out by rising tides, or to assist in an attempted bridge suicide, a boating collision or a kayaker in danger.
A recent rescue in rough weather off the coast of Wales saw two RNLI crews dispatched to assist: They ran an all-weather lifeboat and a fast-inshore lifeboat. The first boat on the scene, the all-weather class, attached a towline and put a casualty-trained volunteer aboard to assist the wounded sailors, despite the heavy seas. Two had minor facial wounds and a third was extremely cold and appeared to be in shock. When he failed to respond to first aid, the UK Coastguard was called in for a medevac, with the inshore lifeboat crew assisting in the hoist. The all-weather boat then towed the injured party’s 38-foot sailboat to the dock and the inshore crew returned, refueled and were ready for their next shout, a half hour later.
These sorts of rescues happen all over the UK, every day. More than 9,000 people were aided by RNLI lifeboats in 2018. And another 32,000-plus were aided by RNLI lifeguards.
Vicky and Marc Murphy will never forget their rescue. On a romantic stroll around a headland in Cornwall 10 years ago, revisiting the site of their engagement to celebrate Vicky’s recent pregnancy, they became trapped by the tide.
“At first the water was only ankle deep,” Vicky said. “But then it was at our knees. Then rose to our shoulders. And then before we knew it, waves were crashing over our heads. I had no idea how we were going to get out of that situation.”
The couple struggled as the surf continued to push them back against the rocky cliff base. “I was trying to fight the current, but it was dragging me out to sea,” she says. “Marc hooked his arm through my dungaree straps, clinging onto the rock with both hands to stop us from being washed away.”
Fortunately, a nearby surfer spotted the couple and saw their predicament. RNLI lifeguards Chris Lowry and Damian Prisk were soon on scene in their inshore rescue boat. The rough surf made getting the boat close too dangerous, but Lowry jumped in and climbed to the rocks. Working together, he and Prisk were able to get the couple aboard and to safety.
“The relief of seeing the lifeguards in the rescue boat coming around the corner still gets me emotional to this day. I’m in awe of their bravery. They are the reason I have my family today,” Vicky says.
What makes the ordinary people of the RNLI heroes? Knowing they’re well prepared is key, but Christiansen points to the RNLI’s fundamental team-building and camaraderie.
“This is such a fantastic group of people to work with. They all bring certain talents,” says Christiansen. He cites a policeman on the crew who operates well under pressure and can “talk down bridge jumpers like no one’s business,” and an airline pilot “who is also cool as a cucumber when the pager goes off. There’s no one here that doesn’t have your back.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.