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Meet the heroes of the River Thames - Gravesend's Royal National Lifeboat Institution

09 March 2014
by Alex Matthews

Many people would see braving the perilous conditions of the River Thames as a thankless task, but for the crew at the RNLI it is the opposite.

Gravesend Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Station in Royal Pier Road, Gravesend, is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The team is responsible for a 26-mile stretch of water and can travel out as far as Canvey Island in Essex and the Thames Barrier.

Helmsman Steve King, 52, said the job can be tough but nothing can beat the satisfaction of saving a life.

He said: “Every day is different and it’s really satisfying when you actually help people and you make a difference.

“If you’re lucky enough to save someone’s life it’s the benefit of the job.

“The downside is that it doesn’t always work out the way we would like it to.”

Steve King, duty helmsman, looks out over the pier jetty across the Thames

Steve King, duty helmsman, looks out over the pier jetty across the Thames

The crew can be out on the river within 90 seconds. They deal with a wide range of “shouts”, whether it is someone falling off a bridge, people stuck in the mud on a river-bank or those stranded by an accident, such as a boat fire.

The team at the station is made up of 40 to 50 volunteers and eight full-time helmsmen. Although the number may seem large, every member is needed as Gravesend was the busiest station in Kent last year and the seventh busiest of the 235 stations in the UK.

Collectively, crews from all nine lifeboat stations in the county launched on more than 400 rescue missions last year, attending incidents including commercial vessels in trouble and distressed fishermen and swimmers.

The Gravesend crew launched 99 times and rescued 58 people. It also saved five lives.

Being part of the crew is gruelling work, with members working eight-hour shifts during the night or day.

Mr King, who has been with the RNLI for five years, said support from family and friends was vital to those serving in the organisation.

He said:“Part of the sacrifice with the job is you’re working shifts and you’re away from your families.

“You couldn’t do it without their support really. It’s the wives and husbands of the people on the crew, you couldn’t do it without them because you’re giving up a lot of time and it takes a lot of dedication.”

The crew at Gravesend come from a wide range of backgrounds, including the fire and ambulance services.

Mr King, who worked on a fireboat for seven years before joining the RNLI, said that although you never wanted someone to get into trouble, there was a sense of fulfilment that comes with knowing you have done some good.

He said: “If we’ve had a busy day, at the end of the shift you feel some sort of satisfaction, but I’m always aware that we’ve been called because someone is in trouble, and we don’t want that.”

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