This article is the first in a new section, Sussex People and Places, which focuses on people, places and organisations that are special to Sussex. Future articles will feature other people and organisations that make an outstanding contribution to their local communities in some way, and sometimes go unsung. And places that are dear to our hearts in Sussex – perhaps because they hold a special meaning for an individual, perhaps because of their history or beauty. We welcome your ideas and suggestions for people and places that we might feature in future issues; please email your suggestions to [email protected].
It’s difficult for most of us to imagine the experience of a rescue at sea like the RNLI Newhaven Lifeboat’s lifesaving mission to the ailing vessel “La Francoise” in 1987. Guiding a small boat through 25-foot waves that blot out the sky, ears battered by the unearthly scream of a storm-force wind and the roar of the sea, and the sheer physical effort of staying upright in a boat that’s bucking and rearing, and somehow managing to bring her alongside a wildly swinging vessel to rescue a desperate crew, is an extraordinary challenge. Warm, dry and safe in our comfortable homes, the closest that we might get to the drama of life and death that Lifeboat crews face on a regular basis is watching the BBC2 series “Saving Lives at Sea”.
So what motivates those who volunteer to join the Lifeboat service? The crew of the Newhaven Lifeboat come from disparate backgrounds, many from professions unrelated to the sea. What unites them is a desire to give something back to the community of people that they live amongst. That strong underlying bond is unique to communities dependent on hard, risky and unforgiving work, whose people have known danger and tragedy. It’s as true of Welsh mining villages as of coastal fishing ports. After the terrible night of the Grenfell Tower fire, one of the first groups to reach out to the survivors was the villagers of Mousehole in Cornwall, whose relatives and friends had died in the 1981 Penlee lifeboat disaster. They understood in a way that others could not.
The first Newhaven Lifeboat was acquired after just such a tragedy – the wreck of HMS Brazen in 1800 with the loss of 104 lives. Paid for by local subscription, the boat was one of William Greathead’s “Originals”, clinker-built with high keels and cork for buoyancy, and powered by eight or ten oarsmen. In an open boat without any protective clothing or lifesaving equipment, going out to a vessel in distress during a storm must have been an incredibly physically challenging experience for her crew, as well as requiring enormous courage.
Over 200 years later, conditions are very different. Newhaven Lifeboat station possesses a streamlined Severn class lifeboat, the “David and Elizabeth Acland”, with twin diesel engines capable of a top speed of 25 knots (that’s 46kph to a landlubber). She’s designed for rescues far out to sea and has a range of 250 miles. The figures tell their own story – launched 16,600 times since the start of her service in 1996, she has rescued 22,748 people and saved 912 lives. As Newhaven coxswain Lewis Arnold explained to the Sussex Express on the occasion of the lifeboat’s 20th anniversary, it’s essential that the crew feel that they can rely on their boat.
“Newhaven Lifeboat is much loved by her crew. We put our trust in her every time we go to sea. She is able to operate in almost any weather condition, day and night, and has been tested to her limits many times while going to the assistance of others.”Newhaven Lifeboat coxswain Lewis Arnold
In spite of the contrast with conditions in the 19th century, crewing a lifeboat can still be a physically and emotionally draining experience. The recent loss of the scalloping vessel “Joanna C” off the Seven Sisters on November 21st 2020 was a desperate ordeal for those out searching for her and for family and friends waiting on shore for news of her three crew members. The Newhaven Lifeboat was launched after a call-out from HM Coastguard, and after over two hours of searching picked up a sole survivor clinging to a lifebuoy. Racing back to the port to meet an ambulance, the Lifeboat relaunched and continued their search during the rest of that day and the next, finally returning to station in the afternoon of the second day. A palpable sense of grief and exhaustion could be seen on the crew’s faces, knowing that the missing crew members were unlikely to be found alive.
Tragic losses like that of the “Joanna C” are rare along the stretch of coast between Beachy Head and Brighton Marina – Newhaven Lifeboat’s “patch”. Call-outs are often to walkers stranded on the rocks by an incoming tide, a dog trapped on a cliff ledge, a yacht taking on water or paddle-boarders blown out to sea. Perhaps the Lifeboat’s most unusual mission was the “capture” of a floating hot tub causing a potential hazard to shipping in the middle of the English Channel.
The RNLI Lifeboat station is at the heart of Newhaven and as Alex Beckett, a Newhaven Lifeboat crew and navigator, says: “There’s been a real sense of support demonstrated by so many local people. It’s a privilege to have such a meaningful relationship with the community you live in.”
The RNLI depends entirely on donations from the public. To donate, go to https://rnli.org/support-us/give-money/donate