This holiday weekend I spent time at my favourite haunt—North Berwick harbour. The 2011 season is well underway with fishing boats out, crowds milling around the SSC, the hatchery reopened, the new lobster shack on the North pier shifting lobster and chips for under a tenner and trip boats shuttling rainsuited visitors out round Bass Rock.
But the weather in May has been, frankly, rubbish. The jet stream’s too far south, pulling lows in off the Atlantic. Even ignoring the awful days of force 9 gusts, the wind has set in the West and the jabble off the Old Pier has made low-water loading of boats a tricky business and trips to the May impossible. Luckily, few amateur sailors are out yet because any one in trouble would get blown out into the North Sea and the heroes (I do not use this word lightly) of the RNLI would swing into action to get them back.
The British may pride themselves in being a maritime people but the ignorance of our average visitor about the sea, its moods and its perils is staggering. Last year, over 300 people owed their lives to the guts and professionalism of 4,500 unpaid, volunteer crew at the 235 RNLI stations around the British Isles. (Note this includes Eire: this is the one British institution they chose not to break away from. Scotland take note.)
The two RNLI stations in East Lothian at Dunbar and N. Berwick are busier than most and getting more so, last year being the second busiest on record. When the furore broke over UK government plans (now hopefully shelved) to cut 18 coastguard stations to three full-time, no gratitude was shown for the unbelievably good deal the government already gets that most maritime rescues (no slight intended to HM Coastguard, RN and RAF rescue helicopter teams) are actually done for them by the RNLI. For free.
Is it conceivable that any government could organise, train and maintain this huge network of tough, indefatigable crews whose esprit de corps puts their lives on the line in the service of others as part of the job? An unpaid job? And, what’s more, do it all for under £250m a year—less than a single council or tank regiment? The RNLI raises ALL that each year through public donations, legacies and merchandising. Even more heartening is how our seaside communities embrace their local RNLI station—through volunteering, fundraising or just solid moral support, not least because just about everyone knows someone they’ve pulled out of danger.
If you haven’t visited your local station (and told them what a splendid job they all do) try it. They’ll have chilling tales of derring do in the teeth of all the legendary cussedness that the North Sea could throw at them. You’ll not only feel the pride they have in the tough job they do but you’ll feel it transfer to you as admiration along the lines of “Hell’s teeth, I couldn’t do what they do, even if they paid me a footballer’s fortune”. Believe me: they deserve it more than the footballers.