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Gravesend RNLI Lifeboat Station marking 15 years on the River Thames

Last week’s terror attack in London provided further evidence of just how indebted we are to the emergency services.

Whether police, fire and rescue, or ambulance crews, their commitment to putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe never ceases to amaze.

And there’s another team of selfless men and women working around the clock to prevent tragedies and save lives.

Volunteer crew members Alan Carr, Peter Birthright, Stewart Challis
Volunteer crew members Alan Carr, Peter Birthright, Stewart Challis

Gravesend’s Royal Pier has housed an RNLI station since January 2, 2002, during which time it has launched its lifeboats 1,500 times, rescued 797 people, and saved 69 lives – and none of it could happen without donations from the public.

It covers a stretch along the Thames which includes Gravesend and Dartford.

With their responsibilities always increasing, station manager Jason Carroll knows that financial support is needed as much now as it ever has been.

Always keeping watch
Always keeping watch

“Every single thing the RNLI does relies on donations, whether that’s people putting money in a pot or raising funds through a school event,” he said.

“95% of our income comes from donations. I don’t think people realise when they go to the beaches and see a coastguard, or see someone come into a school to talk to the kids about water safety, that it all comes from a charity.”

The vast majority of the Gravesend crew is made up of volunteers, with just one in 10 having professional maritime experience, working 12-hour shifts to ensure that the station is manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Port of London Authority Pilot's boat working off the Royal Terrace Pier
The Port of London Authority Pilot's boat working off the Royal Terrace Pier

At the moment there are just over 50 people on the team – quite the step up from how it all began just over 15 years ago.

“When we started we had two mobile buildings in the car park and all we had was a chair and a phone, so it was pretty much a case of starting from scratch,” Jason continued.

“We had a few weeks of settling in and then went live in January. It was a bit daunting but we’ve gone upwards ever since.

“We’re here 24/7 and we’ve got a crew room, an office, kitchen, there are showers, two bunk-rooms, so we can be self-sufficient.”

Giving back a good reason to do the job

Two of the Gravesend station’s longest serving crew members are Mike Rountree and Pete Birthright, who have been there since the beginning.

Pete was there before the station went live, working out of the mobile units with station manager Jason at the end of 2001.

Despite the rough start, the decision to join was an easy one and there has been no reason to leave, either.

“I wanted to join because I have always had a massive respect for the RNLI and what they have done,” he said.

“It offers people the opportunity to give something back to a great charity. I believe in what we’re doing and like helping in any way I can. We know what we’re here for — you just need to be passionate about it.”

For Mike, the opportunity to give something back is also at the heart of why he gives up his free time to help the cause.

Crew members suits lined up in the locker room
Crew members suits lined up in the locker room

He works full-time as a BT engineer and comes into the station on his days off, and much like Pete, takes great pride in his responsibilities.

“I like surfboarding and also do some diving. Someday I may need to call upon these guys, so I feel I’m putting something back into it,” he said.

“I think it’s the same for a lot of the guys. It’s helping the community and we may all need that help ourselves at some point.”

One of the main motivations behind serving with the RNLI for so long is that the role is always evolving as technology develops and improves.

The RNLI is always upgrading its equipment, including communication tools for liaising directly with the emergency services, which means the training never stops.

Volunteers range in age from 17 to 58 and the Gravesend station is always on the hunt for people to join.

Station manager Jason said the station was becoming more diverse all the time, which reflects the population of Gravesend in 2017.

“Fifteen years ago it would’ve been middle-aged white males – now it’s anyone who can pass a fitness test, lend their time, and who have got great personal qualities,” he added.

“There’s no time for prima donnas. We’re looking for great team players that can give to the station and give to the community.”

Over the years Gravesend has become the busiest lifeboat station in Kent and ranks fifth in the entire country. It is one of four RNLI stations on the River Thames, alongside Tower, Chiswick, and Teddington.

They were set up following the 1989 Marchioness tragedy, after which the Thames Safety Inquiry conducted by Lord Justice Clarke recommended a dedicated search and rescue service on the tidal reaches of the river.

Gravesend’s station covers an area from Hole Haven, at the western end of Canvey Island, to the Thames Flood Barrier at Woolwich, a distance of 26 miles serving Kent, Essex, and south London.

Volunteer crew members Alan Carr and Stewart Challis getting kitted out
Volunteer crew members Alan Carr and Stewart Challis getting kitted out

The crew is called to help people who get injured or fall ill while out on the water, and the team has noticed a rise in the number of people going missing and those suffering from mental health issues.

“It takes you out of your comfort zone. You can deal with a broken down boat or someone who needs medical attention, but mental health issues take you away from your training,” said Jason.

“We take a maximum of four crew out on any incident. Every morning we have a brief so that if there’s an incident we have the crew ready to respond, because each of them have different responsibilities.”

Case of the 'udderly' ridiculous

If the RNLI has a bread and butter when it comes to incidents, it would be broken down boats or people who have found themselves in danger.

But you might be surprised to learn just how often animals are the cause of the station phone ringing, with cats, dogs, horses, birds, and even cows all finding themselves in need of the RNLI’s help over the past 15 years.

Canines who end up in the water are often followed by their owners, who in their desperation to assist their beloved pets often end up requiring RNLI aid, too.

According to Gravesend station manager Jason, nine out of 10 times the crew are called to rescue a dog, it ends up being the owner who is in greater need of saving.

A cow was rescued. Stock picture
A cow was rescued. Stock picture

And as for the cows?

“We were at a public event and had a call from the coastguard saying there were some cows in the water by Denton Wharf,” he recalled.

“They had started swimming from Kent over towards Essex and the coastguard was worried about them being a danger to the river traffic.

“About eight of them were packed together trying to get over to Essex and we had to divert them back.”

The Gravesend crew is also part of an initiative across the RNLI to try to reduce drowning by 50% by 2024, which is the charity’s 200th anniversary.

Jason is keen to engage with the community to raise awareness of the dangers of the Thames, especially now that we’re in British Summer Time when the days are longer and the weather begins to brighten up.

“Gordon Promenade, for example: you get people swimming in the summer and in the last few years we’ve had half a dozen fatalities there,” he said.

“People aren’t always receptive to receiving risk-critical information, so we look at how we can interact with members of the community in different ways, whether it’s through a school or a college, or a respectable figure in the area.”

Volunteer crew members Stewart Challis, Helmsman Peter Birthright and Alan Carr
Volunteer crew members Stewart Challis, Helmsman Peter Birthright and Alan Carr

Not only does the crew want to make people more aware of the risks of entering the water, they also want to use the 15th anniversary as an opportunity to make the RNLI itself more visible in the community.

As grateful as they are for the support of the Port of London Authority, being hidden away in one of their buildings on the pier means passers-by would have no idea the station is even there.

Jason is able to cite plenty of examples of the RNLI being called to incidents via another emergency service because people didn’t know they were the team to call.

“If anyone thinks they see something on the river or needs help, even if they’re not sure, make the call to 999 and ask for the coastguard,” he said.

“They let us know and I’d rather go to 500 false alarms with good intent than someone not call because they weren’t sure what they’d seen, and then we recover a body weeks later.”

A class act

The Gravesend RNLI station is equipped with an Atlantic 85-class lifeboat named Olive Laura Deare II.

It arrived in 2008 at a cost of around £214,000 to replace the original Olive Laura Deare, now on show at the Historic Dockyard Chatham.

The 8.4m-long boat has a top speed of 35 knots and holds four crew and 20 survivors. With two powerful engines capable of keeping her operational even after capsizing, and a full suite of communication and electronic navigation tools, it is state-of-the-art so far as lifeboats go.

In addition to the navigation features that include a hi-tech radar, it also comes with a casualty care kit, stretcher, salvage pump, searchlights and night-vision capability.

Any lifeboat of this class is generally refitted every four years, with the entire craft stripped and rebuilt. Any part found to be worn, torn or broken, is repaired or replaced.

With developments along the river becoming increasingly prevalent, including the upcoming Ebbsfleet Garden City and London Paramount, the Kent end of the Thames is in for some big changes over the next five to 10 years.

The water will certainly be getting a lot busier, which makes it all the more important that the RNLI is here to keep it – and us – safe.

The charity has been an integral part of Gravesend’s waterfront for 15 years, and hopefully there are many more to come.

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