When the sea’s no longer fun… lifeboat crews on respect, danger and staying safe

Two paddle boarders on the open sea
Calm for now.. “There are no so many people on the water, there’s a greater chance of something going wrong”. Photo credit: Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Each year there are about 70 RNLI ‘shouts’ to the Newhaven volunteers. Unsurprisingly, after completing so many rescues, Nick Gentry, Katie Dusart and Will Morris hold the utmost respect for the sea. 

Without a sailing background, Katie explained how she was originally motivated to volunteer to give back to her local community, but also to learn to safely spend time at sea. In Part 2 of our series on the Newhaven RNLI crew, she says: “I have learnt the majority of my respect for the water since joining the RNLI. My respect for the sea is now significant. I’m not sure everyone is quite as aware as they should be.” 

Nick is understandably keen to impress the sheer force of the sea. “It’s an immensely powerful thing and you have to treat it with respect.” Nick said. “Not many people realise, but if you see waves remember that a cubic metre of sea water weighs one tonne. Then when you think about how much water there is in a wave, it’s incredibly powerful.” 

A lifeboat crew line up the the bow of their boat on the shore of Seaford Bay
The Newhaven volunteers at Seaford Bay. Photo credit: RNLI

Since Nick joined the RNLI crew 39 years ago, the shouts have changed drastically.

“These days there are so many more people on and around the water for pleasure. If you go back to when I first started, you’d get yachts and the odd small fishing boat… but now you’ve got paddle boarders, windsurfers, kayakers, jet skis and surfers. 

“When I first started, I’d get called out a lot in bad weather, whereas now we get called out more often in good weather. Because there are more people on the water, there’s a greater chance of things going wrong.”

‘The sea is incredibly powerful … a cubic metre weighs a tonne’

NIck gentry, RNLI veteran

For Will, the power of the waves was brought home during some of the storms he has experienced while out on the lifeboat. “The biggest weather I’ve been out in has been Force 8 or 9,” he said.

Considering that a hurricane would be a Force 12, this rescue was a serious one.

“It was a trawler with engine failure that we towed from Newhaven to Shoreham. I think it took us about five hours, travelling at about three knots [about 3.5mph].” 

Given rescues like these, Will shared his tactic for staying safe at sea. “I think in your head you must come up with these scenarios like: what’s the worst that could happen? Then you prepare for that.” When swimming, kayaking, or even walking on the coast, Will advises thinking in this manner. For him, being safe at sea is all about being prepared, not complacent.

‘You think: what’s the worst that can happen. And prepare for that’

Will morris, RNLI volunteer

Asked what the most common shouts are, Will said: “Broken down boats is a big one for us. This means that people sometimes say, ‘Are you not just a glorified AA service?’ My reply to that is always no, there’s many different reasons that we go out to boats.”

He has a point; you would never catch the Automobile Association going out for an English Springer Spaniel. Nick recalled a particularly memorable rescue for one such dog named Poppy. 

“As a dog owner myself I am passionate that people should not walk dogs on the clifftops unless they are on a lead. If I had a pound for every dog that I have gone to rescue that had gone over the cliffs – well, I’d be better off than I am now. It’s a tragic thing to do and it cuts us up something rotten.” 

A bird's eye view of the crew, supine on the docks beside their gear and their boat.
Bird’s eye view: the volunteers, their boat and kit. Phot credit: Alex Franklin

Poppy was lucky. Miraculously when the team arrived, they saw her sitting up, patiently waiting on a small patch of beach. They sent out the inflatable lifeboat and returned Poppy, cold and wet, to her family. The story went viral, even making a splash in New Zealand.

There truly is a vast array of shouts that need responding to. Luckily, the extensive RNLI training prepares volunteers for all these eventualities. Nevertheless, it can be draining work. 

Katie reflected on her career as a paramedic where she learnt the importance of processing the events that you see and respond to. “It’s obviously good to be able to switch off,” she said. “But it’s also important to process, so it’s all about finding that balance. This sometimes takes practice but we’re really lucky at Newhaven because obviously we can all talk to each other.”

‘It’s important to switch off, but also process events. We all talk to each other’

katie dusart, rnli volunteer

Since the pandemic, many charities have faced financial struggles with so many activities such as sponsored races being cancelled or postponed. But the RNLI, founded in 1824, holds a special place in the hearts of the public. 

“It’s very inspiring that so many people see it as a worthwhile thing to support.” Nick said. “I think it’s because we’re an island nation, so none of us live very far from the coast. But without the support of the public, we really couldn’t do what we do – it’s as simple as that.”

Looking after Newhaven’s formidable lifeboat takes plenty of maintenance. “It’s not just that you pay for a pressure wash occasionally,” said Will. “There is onboard technology to upgrade and new kit to purchase, not to mention the volunteers’ routine training.”

Naturally, this is not cheap. But Katie knows that dedicated public support makes such projects possible. 

“I think the supporters do a massive amount. There’s obviously a lot of fundraising to do, but there’s a great amount of public support for the RNLI so I think I am really grateful for that. I’m trying to think what else supporters could do and I’m not sure there’s anything.”

Shout out! The RNLI volunteer team keeping you safe at sea

Anna Scott

The RNLI lifeboat at Newhaven is a part of a hugely popular, publicly funded charity that inspires loyalty and devotion from its volunteers, who selflessly dedicate their lives to saving the lives of others. How and why do they do it? This is their story.

None of these three volunteers showed the faintest sign that they wished to stop working with the RNLI. 

“The way I see it, it is a privilege to be able to volunteer.” Nick said. “It’s a fantastic thing that I’ve been allowed to do, and I’ve met some amazing people. You have great fun doing it and you’re doing some good too. It’s like a win-win-win all round. I always said, if I stopped enjoying it, I would give it up and here I am, 39 years later, still doing it!”

As I wrapped up my interview with Nick, it occurred to me that our conversation could easily have been cut short, as his pager bleeped. “Where is it now?” I asked. “Right here on my belt,” Nick replied, “And at night it sits beside me on the bedside cabinet.” 

This kind of round-the-clock commitment is remarkable. It is surely testament, not only to the volunteers’ own dedication to saving lives at sea, but also to the strong community spirit of the team in Newhaven. The team truly do deserve a shout out.

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