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RNLI 200 years: The volunteer crew behind the pager at Sheerness lifeboat station

Swimmers, leisure craft users, fishermen, and even seaside explorers go about their business along the UK’s coast knowing that if something goes wrong the RNLI will be there to save the day and help them if they get into difficulty.

However, most of the general public assumes the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is just another emergency response unit, like the police, fire, and ambulance service – but this isn’t the case.

Sheerness RNLI's two lifeboats. Picture: Sheerness RNLI
Sheerness RNLI's two lifeboats. Picture: Sheerness RNLI

The RNLI is a charity that saves lives at sea and the crew who pull people from the water are just ordinary people, with ordinary jobs who selflessly volunteer their time and safety to help those in need.

Today, March 4, marks the RNLI’s 200th year of lifesaving. Since it was formed in 1824, people across the UK have formed crews and funded the kit and lifeboats all over England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Across Kent, there are several lifeboat stations with one in Gravesend, Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate, Walmer, Dover, Dungeness, and Littlestone-on-Sea.

To mark the 200-year celebration, KentOnline visited the county’s ninth station in Sheerness to learn more about the crew and what it is like to live your life by a pager.

The Sheppey station, which operates away from public view within the Island’s old naval port, has 24 crew members and both a D-class inshore lifeboat and a Shannon all-weather lifeboat.

Outside Sheerness Lifeboat Station
Outside Sheerness Lifeboat Station

Paul Jarvis is the only full-time member at the station, which covers the waterways of the River Medway, Thames Estuary and the Swale.

The 63-year-old coxswain and mechanic, from Halfway, has been on the crew for the last 31 years and has had many moments when his private life has been put on hold to save those in trouble.

He said: “I’ve only been in a permanent position at the station for the last three years, before that, I was a volunteer and worked on the Svitzer Tugs.

“When I was working in other employment, as many of our crew do now, it was a case of when the pager went off, you just drop everything and get to the station as quick as you can.

“I think the public understands what we do in terms of rescue, but probably not the time that volunteers put into training and also the time when they're sat at home on pager, that's not anything that's seen on TV.

Paul Jarvis, coxswain at Sheerness lifeboat station. Picture: Megan Carr
Paul Jarvis, coxswain at Sheerness lifeboat station. Picture: Megan Carr

“I can recall several times that I’ve been taken away from doing personal things by the pager.

“One time I was halfway through shopping, halfway through getting a shave or a haircut, the pager never goes off when you're expecting it, so it's always at an awkward time.”

Despite his long career with the RNLI, Paul says it was one of the jobs he went out on at the beginning of his time with the charity that sticks with him.

He said: “We went out when I was a fairly new crew member to a woman doing a solo passage on a yacht, and there was a thunderstorm.

“The storm had come up quickly, and she'd been knocked over and then lost control of the yacht, and the sails were damaged, she’d been blown onto a bank.

The D-class lifeboat at the Sheerness Lifeboat Station
The D-class lifeboat at the Sheerness Lifeboat Station

“I remember distinctly going out with black skies and lightning flashing all around, thinking this doesn't look very safe. But all in all, it was quite a good job and we all got back safely.”

Jack Smedley, from Minster, has been a volunteer on the crew for seven years and works on the docks for Briggs Marine.

Speaking on his time with the crew, the 31-year-old dad said: “Every job, every shout is very different.

“We've got such a big patch that no two jobs are the same.

“When the pager goes off, it is instilled in you that you're going to the worst moments in someone's life. I think that because there are people who don't get paid to do it and are still risking their lives to save someone else's just shows that we just want to help them and we just want to make sure that everything has a positive outcome, because ultimately, that's what we're here for.

Use the white circle to see Jack Smedley transform from a Briggs Marine employee into an RNLI volunteer

“You're generally proud to be a lifeboatman. So to be a part of it during the 200-year celebration makes it just a little bit more special.”

One of Jack’s most memorable pager moments was at a party he’d organised.

He explained: “A few years ago, I organised a surprise birthday party, which didn't go down too well.

“About 30 seconds after we realised that it was a bad idea, the pager went off, so I got to run out, which was nice. But there are so many moments to choose from.”

Malcolm Kemsley, from Queenborough, has been on the crew for 14 years and has run his shop in Sheerness High Street, M&A Tackle, for over a decade.

Use the white circle to see Malcolm Kemsley transform from a business owner into an RNLI volunteer

The dad-of-three is in his shop, which sells fishing tackle, air guns, and boating equipment, six days a week.

However, if the pager goes off and he’s needed, the 41-year-old closes his business and attends to those who need his help.

He said: “Being on a pager while running a business is pretty demanding financially because if I'm not here, I'm not making as much money as what potentially I could do.

“It can be awkward sometimes if I've got a shop full of people and my pager goes off, I have in the past said ‘right, everyone, sorry, you'll have to come back later’ and most people are understanding.

“A lot of my regular customers know what I do and the public generally have a positive response to any RNLI volunteer.”

M&A Tackle in Sheerness High Street
M&A Tackle in Sheerness High Street

Tom Ware, from Minster, also runs a business in the town’s high street.

The 41-year-old has had Hagars Electronics for 22 years and has been on the crew for 20.

He said: “When I get the page, I shut the door, I get in my car and I go to the dock. That's it, the shop is shut.

“It can affect my business negatively because you could be out on a job for an hour or so or it can be all day, eight hours, we’re out.”

Unlike Malcom’s customers, Tom says a handful of his shoppers get quite upset if he has to head out on a shout.

Use the white circle to see Tom Ware transform from a business owner into an RNLI volunteer

He continued: “Probably about 90% of my customers understand and know where I am going, but some aren't very happy about it, I’ve even had some people rip my sign off my door when I’ve declared I’m on an RNLI job as they want to make their purchase and they want to ask me questions.”

Speaking on the impact his volunteering role has on his family, Tom added: “I've got a wife and a child.

“Initially, my wife was very supportive, but now she hates it. Days out and stuff like that get spoiled and it depends on what you're doing.”

Steven Spoor has been on the crew for almost 40 years and his family, including his daughter, 36-year-old Zoe, are incredibly proud of him and his crew mates.

The pair, from Minster, work at S&S Heating and Electrical along Broadway.

Hagars Electronics in Sheerness High Street
Hagars Electronics in Sheerness High Street

Heating engineer Steven has been running the business for eight years and his commitments to the RNLI have meant Zoe has had to get him out of numerous appointments with customers.

She said: “Because of his pager I have to sort out a lot of rearranged appointments.

“There are lots of times when he is running off to save people's lives and get people out of sticky situations and I’m left calling people around frantically letting them know that he isn’t coming to their appointment.

“It can be quite frustrating sometimes but on the whole, a lot of people are quite appreciative of the fact that he is going out.

“The 200-year anniversary of the RNLI is just amazing.

Lifejackets at the Sheerness RNLI station
Lifejackets at the Sheerness RNLI station

“My uncles, Brian Jr and Stuart, were both on the crew as was my granddad, Brian Sr, and I've just got a whole other family with the Sheerness lifeboat team.

“They're just a big happy family and I'm just incredibly proud.”

Steven, who has been in the plumbing trade for around 30 years, explained that his family have been on the Island’s crew since 1978 and as a result, it was inevitable that he too would join the station.

He said: “We’ve all grown up with the pager so everyone knows what happens when it goes off.

“There is one shout I vividly remember where unfortunately three gentlemen turned their dinghy over in Queenborough Harbour, that was the night of my mum and dad's 25th wedding anniversary, so I was called away from that to go and assist those people.

Use the white circle to see Steven Spoor transform from a business owner into an RNLI volunteer

“After 40 years on the crew, I think it just becomes part of you and you just carry on doing it.

“I always said to myself ‘oh, when that new boat comes, I'm going to retire, stand down’ but the last time I said that was about the boat previous to the boat we currently have!”

Ricardo Araujo, also from Minster, has only been on the crew for nine months.

The 43-year-old, who is originally from Portugal, owns RJA Electrical Services in Sheerness High Street and says being a business owner is what allows him to volunteer.

He said: “It's something that has always attracted me and I came to this point in my life where I’ve got my shop and other people helping me so when the pager goes off, I can just go.

Use the white circle to see Ricardo Araujo transform from a business owner into an RNLI volunteer

“Everyone's excited in the office when the pager goes off, they all want to know what's going on and I'm like ‘see ya later’. It’s almost an excuse to get out of work!

“I enjoy the reactions of people when they see us coming up to them in the boat, it’s very good.”

Another business owner who can drop everything and go when her pager goes off is Rachel Collier, the landlady of the Admiral's Arm Micropub in Queenborough.

The 47-year-old from Minster has run the watering hole for the last seven years and been on the crew for six years.

She said: “When we opened the pub, we decided to choose one charity to raise money for and we chose the RNLI, who we have now managed to raise more than £37,000 for over the last seven years.

Use the white circle to see Rachel Collier transform from a landlady into an RNLI volunteer

“I got to know the guys and they said they were short of daytime crew and as I'm available during the day I said, I'd join them.”

When the pager goes off, Rachel drops everything, even occasionally her punters if the call is in the evening, and leaves her pub in the hands of her husband, Chris.

One of Rachel’s most memorable times on board was when she and the crew had to save police and paramedics one night.

She explained: “It was at the bottom of the cliff, they'd gone to help rescue our casualty and the tide was coming in.

“Unfortunately, they didn't have enough time to walk back. So we had to rescue them by boat. So that was quite interesting.”

The Amiral's Arm micropub in Queenborough
The Amiral's Arm micropub in Queenborough

Steve Elliott, from Rushenden, joined the crew at the same time as Rachel.

The 60-year-old, who is a production operations manager at Cajero, a company based in the village that makes diamond-tipped tools for aerospace engineers, says he’s lucky to have a work environment that lets him respond to his pager when he is needed.

He said: “Cajero, they really support the RNLI, and they always give me the time off when required.

“I'm always on page and it's quite common that when they hear the page go, they just open the doors for me and I dash out and go.

“Somehow the pager has a knack of going off when I'm in the middle of a meeting.

Use the white circle to see Steve Elliott transform from a Cajero employee into an RNLI volunteer

“I've been in the meeting with the directors and the pager has gone off, I'll be on a machine, in a machine, up a ladder or in front of a customer when it happens but everyone's well-versed with it now, so they're used to it.”

Steve, from Scotland, joined the RNLI due to his interest in sailing and the water in general – he even used to be a scallop diver – but there is more to his reasoning for being a volunteer.

He added: “It's my way of putting something back into the community. It's really nice to be able to do something and not expect anything back for it.

“I think anyone in the RNLI is proud of being in the organisation.

“It's great as you wouldn't normally get that mix of people all working together. It's fantastic the way it works.”

The Shannon all-weather lifeboat at the Sheerness Lifeboat Station
The Shannon all-weather lifeboat at the Sheerness Lifeboat Station

To find out more about the RNLI’s 200-year celebrations, or to donate visit the charity’s website.

Today, in mark of the celebration, Dover Castle will be lit up in RNLI Yellow from dusk.

Mariners across Britain are also being invited to sound their ships’ whistles at noon today in appreciation for the RNLI.

The port of Dover has put out a notice to mariners asking them to do so, as has Royal Ramsgate Harbour with P&O Ferries and DFDS confirming they’ll be supporting.

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