Lifeline to those all at sea

On Sunday, two novice canoeists were rescued by the Dun Laoghaire Inshore Lifeboat. Lifeboat crews get no money and sometimes no thanks, but rescues such as this are just part of the job for the volunteers who risk their lives to save yours. Yvonne Gordon reports

'He was that cold, his body was in a single spasm." David Branigan, a journalist who is a crew member and honorary press officer of Dun Laoghaire lifeboat in Co Dublin, remembers one rescue operation in particular, off Sandymount in Dublin.

"We saw the man immediately and he was up to his head in water and with every wave that came by, he was taking mouthfuls of water. He was drowning before us as we arrived.

"We were able to get him straight into the boat. We headed for the shore and as we got closer to the beach we ran out of water. So we had to dump the boat, lift the man out and carry him through the water. There were just two of us.

"Walking through water and carrying somebody is pretty arduous and we had about half a mile to go. The man was in a pretty bad way, he had a lot of water taken and was frothing at the mouth. We had to stop a couple of times to get him breathing properly again. The helicopter landed, we put him on and we heard subsequently that he had two heart attacks on the way to hospital. But he survived.

"The experience of seeing somebody that close to death and then turning the situation around was probably one of the highlights so far."

The lifeboats are no place for the weak-hearted. Lifeboat crews are on 24-hour standby, ready to drop everything to go to sea to rescue anyone in danger, no matter what the weather. They are prepared to risk their lives to save others. They are not always appreciated for their dedication and courage and not many people know that they don't get paid for what they do.

Last Sunday, two novice canoeists were rescued off Dalkey Island in Dublin. The pair, who had bought their canoeing gear less than 24 hours before the accident, were lucky to be alive. The Dun Laoghaire Inshore Lifeboat came to their resue after the alarm was raised by onlookers when one of the two canoes capsized, and the other was unable to paddle to safety in the hazardous conditions. One of the men had been immersed in the water for more than half an hour before he was brought to shore. The lifeboat was at sea when Dublin Coastguard notified the crew of the incident who got to the scene in minutes.

There are 800 volunteer lifeboat crew in Ireland, including 60 women. As storms at sea often develop quickly and without warning, lifeboats frequently get called out to rescue everything from ferries, fishing boats and yachts, to swimmers and surfers.

There are 42 lifeboats stations in cities, towns and villages around Ireland. Ages and backgrounds of lifeboat crews vary widely - they come from all walks of life. But the one thing that they have in common is that they dedicate their free time to saving lives. Many people find it hard to understand or appreciate how crew members find the courage to do this; most lifeboat crew members think nothing of running down the road in the middle of the night in howling winds and rain to go out to sea to save complete strangers.

Redmond Lane-Walsh is second mechanic and second coxswain of the lifeboat in Ballycotton, Co Cork. He joined the lifeboat because it was a family tradition; his father was in it, and his father before that. There are three generations of his family currently on the crew.

"Ever since I've been able to walk I've been in and out of lifeboats," says Lane-Walsh. "I'm involved in fishing so it was natural that I was going to get involved in the lifeboat as well." He says he has been rescued by the lifeboat himself - twice - and that it is one of the main reasons he does the job. "It's nice to know that if you do get into trouble, there's somebody that can come out and save you."

Ciaran Doyle, second mechanic and emergency coxswain of Wicklow lifeboat, says that he loves going to sea in boats and being out in the open water. "I like the feel of the boats, the equipment itself. The natural benefit of doing it associated with the lifeboat institution is that you do something good while you're there as well." He says that there is great satisfaction in going out and bringing somebody back to a safe haven.

Doyle says that for most crews, weather doesn't actually feature - it's rare they would come up against circumstances of weather that would pose any sort of excessive difficulty, because the boats themselves are so well equipped.

However he does say that anyone who suffers from claustrophobia or seasickness won't be able to do the job. "When you get into a lifeboat in rough weather and you're strapped in and the hatches are closed, and water is coming at you from all angles, if that bothers you, very quickly you'll realise it's not for you."

And it's not a case of 'just hold on' - the crew need to be able to operate the boats and equipment, no matter what the weather or circumstances. They might be required to navigate or perform first aid. For this reason, they undergo rigorous training in every aspect of the job.

Most stations run crew training once a week. The boat goes to sea and crews practise everything from emergency steering and dropping anchor to retrieving casualties from overboard. They also train with other rescue agencies such as air-sea rescue, perhaps practising winching personnel up and down from the lifeboat to a helicopter.

Doyle says that one of the hardest parts of the job is dealing with fatalities. "That is probably the most difficult thing you will face and it tends to be in cases where somebody may have been in the water a long time. Even the mechanics of trying to get somebody out of the water in those circumstances are quite difficult."

However, many of the crew say that the fact that they are doing something good for a family, by bringing someone back, makes them able to keep going in the face of this tough challenge. The RNLI provides counselling for crew members who have been in difficult situations. The crew members also say that the strong bond and camaraderie that develops between them helps them to deal with and get over bad situations.

Lifeboat crew carry pagers and when they are called, they must be ready to drop whatever they are doing and go to sea. When they return to land, they put the lifeboat away, first making sure that it is totally ready to go out on service again. During busy periods, they might be called out more than once in the same day, or a few nights in a row. And they still have to get up for work the next morning for their day job.

David Branigan says that people perhaps take the lifeboat for granted. He says that because it seems fully funded, fully equiped and looks very professional, people think it must be full time. "A lot of people are surprised to find that it's actually volunteers from the local community," he says.

This article is based on the radio documentary 'No place for the weak-hearted', produced by Yvonne Gordon, which will be broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 tonight at 7pm.

For more information about the lifeboat service and how you can help, see, e-mail or phone 01 284 5050