Heroes of the Sea

I have a confession: I am a Royal Naval Lifeboat Institution (“RNLI”) Geek. Maybe even a little bit of a Lifeboat Groupie.


I love the Lifeboat for lots of reasons but honestly in large part it’s because the Lifeboat is just SO COOL. Lifeboats and their crews are immeasurably important to seafaring folk. They are funded by the public, and they are amazing. A-MA-ZING.

What they say about themselves on their website (rnli.org) is, “Since 1824 we’ve pioneered developments in lifesaving at sea. And our lifesavers have shown unfailing courage and selflessness.” That accurate but dry statement hardly covers it. Before I moved to this small fishing village in the far north of Scotland, I didn’t know they existed. I suppose if I’d thought about it I would have assumed there was some kind of sea rescue operation, but did I know they were the rock stars of the open seas? I did not! Since my very first Lifeboat Day here in our village, I have been hooked.


Over the centuries Lifeboat crews have risked their lives in the dangerous waters around the UK to save the lives of those in distress, from those on freighters to folks on the littlest dinghies, and everyone in between. Up here in the north we’ve got unpredictable seas and firths with colliding tides and whirlpools and perilously rocky coastlines, but the Lifeboat goes in full-tilt, whenever and wherever someone needs them. The tradition is important. Not only that, it is vital. Volunteers from all around the UK undertake strenuous training with the RNLI to join Lifeboat crews. They are heroes.


Our “local” Lifeboat is stationed about 45 miles north. They come to our harbor once a year for the aforementioned Lifeboat Day (I think technically it’s called Harbor Day, but I am blinded by the awesomeness that is the Lifeboat so it gets top billing in my book). It’s a fund-raiser as well as a great day out with the chance to see that beautiful Lifeboat in action. Once upon a time they gave rides on it, but apparently Health and Safety put a stop to that. I ask you: Where on the sea would anyone be safer than on the Lifeboat? Even so, the rides were stopped. To my great good fortune I was able to experience one before the silliness of bureaucracy took over. Oh my goodness… You know how a toddler will shout, “Again! Again!!” when they discover a fun new game? That was me. I could have ridden around on that Lifeboat all day long.


As my husband and I stood in line to wait our turn the Harbormaster leaned in conspiratorially and said with a sly grin, “Make sure ye stay a bit for’ard, or ye might get wet feet.” We heeded his warning and moved well up the side of the Lifeboat upon boarding. The engine growled to life and off we went, gliding serenely out of the harbor. The day was fine; the sea, calm. Seagulls wheeled and soared behind us and I looked around, seeing our village from an entirely new vantage point.


Once clear of the harbor the Coxswain let the Lifeboat go – I was going to say “full throttle” but in reality it was probably nowhere near that. Still, the Lifeboat surged forward, nose up, powerful propellor digging in, churning up the sea. Whee!! Sem, having spent some time at sea in his younger days and thus having steadier sea-legs than me, took photo after photo (the on-board shots in this article were taken by him on that day). I just clung to the railing and laughed, giddy with joy.


After a few minutes the engine noise changed and the Lifeboat stopped in her tracks for a split second before seeming to buck into reverse. The shrieks and laughter from the back of the boat confirmed the Harbormaster’s warning – everyone there was soaked from head to toe! Sem and I grinned at each other, nice and dry, having been forewarned. Hah – the joke was on us! The Lifeboat danced a bit more and the sea splashed up and finished us off, as well. Sodden! And still my little-kid heart cried, “Again! Again!!” We roared around a bit on that fabulous beast of a boat before rumbling back in to the harbor, smooth as you like. I didn’t stop smiling for hours.


Our village has a special relationship with the Lifeboat. Our harbor is the last refuge for miles, for anyone trying to outrun a storm, and when it looked like it might be closed the RNLI fought alongside our village to keep it open. Our harbor was saved largely due to their support because, you know… saving the day: it’s what they do.

The bond is deep between fishing villages and Lifeboats. The RNLI crews do it because they love it, because it is necessary, and because they are indeed courageous and selfless. Sadly, despite their best efforts far too many lives are still lost at sea, though many less than there would be, were it not for the RNLI. People feel those losses strongly. We live at the doorstep of the sea, and know the danger of it – no one moreso than those who make their living on it, and have done so for generations. Lifeboat crews are heroes without a doubt, and the fact that the RNLI has survived – and thrived – all these years is a testament to how much people care about them. Our support and donations keep them going, and what do they do in return? Oh, just go out and save lives every day!


My husband’s great-grandfather was the Coxswain of the Ackergill Lifeboat around 100 years ago. Back then the Lifeboat was much smaller and the crew had to row for it; all guts and determination, no motor to churn up the waves. Lifeboat crews were a breed apart, then as now, and all the fund-raising in the world cannot repay the debt they’re owed, as they risk – and sometimes lose – their own lives, to save the lives of others. Where would we be without people like them? At least now they have excellent technology to help them, using Lifeboats that are just about the safest (and coolest!) things out there on the open sea. They can’t save everyone, but that won’t stop them from trying as hard as anyone can.

As for the Lifeboat, I think I will always get a little thrill when I see her out there, either moored in the harbor or being put through her paces. She’s gorgeous, and to anyone who is lost, stranded or in danger at sea, I’m sure she and her crew are the most beautiful sight in the world.


Deb Segelitz

Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands, sharing life with her husband, a Highlander she stumbled across purely by chance on a blog site. They own a small business restoring and selling vintage fountain pens, which allows Deb to set her own schedule and have time for photography, writing and spontaneous car rides in the countryside. She is grateful to the readers of ANC for accepting her into the North State fold.

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