Celebrating 200 years of the RNLI for The Telegraph Magazine

‘The RNLI is here to save people at sea, no matter who they are’

As the charity marks its 200th anniversary, it faces its most difficult moment as the migrant crisis brings fresh waves of critique

Words by Alex Diggins

It’s early January, more than a mile out to sea, and we’re looking for a body in the water. I’m on patrol with the crew of the Shoreham lifeboat, Enid Collett, a Tamar-class vessel, the RNLI’s largest all-weather boat. With its battery of screens and hydraulic-cushioned seats, the cabin is closer to the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet than any boat I’ve been in, and it’s capable of travelling 250 nautical miles without refuelling, and hitting 25 knots. 

That doesn’t sound like much – but going nearly 30mph on any sort of chop is unforgettable. Three storeys above the waves, eyes streaming uncontrollably, it’s like being strapped to the roof of a double-decker bus as it blasts over rubble.

Right now, though, we’re motoring more gently. The pilot hugs the coast for a mile, before tacking back to sea, mapping out a rough grid: standard procedure on a search. I huddle deeper into my foul-weather gear. After a week of storms, it’s blindingly bright. Yet the wind is brutal, hatcheting the waves into spray and numbing exposed fingers. Suddenly, a shape: 200 metres off starboard, something is in the water. ‘There,’ I point.

‘Surprised it took you so long,’ says coxswain Simon Williams. ‘He’s bright yellow with a head the size of a beach ball.’ He’s got a point – and this ‘casualty’ seems notably ungrateful for his rescue. A sodden 25kg dummy by the name of Fred – ‘we’ll have to change the name if we get a crew member called Fred’ – I watch as he is truculently manhandled aboard.

I’ve been invited out with the West Sussex Shoreham crew on one of their regular Sunday training sessions. In common with the 237 other lifeboat stations around the British and Irish coasts, only the coxswain is being paid for this. The other six crew are volunteers, giving up around 20 hours a month to training, briefings and boat care. This commitment is on top of any rescues – ‘shouts’ in the RNLI parlance – that they are summoned to.

The exercise isn’t just being put on for my benefit. Only two days ago, Williams and his crew spent four hours searching for a missing person. ‘It didn’t end well,’ he tells me. There was a delay in telling the lifeboat to launch and by the time it arrived, there wasn’t much to be done. 

The Shoreham boat is usually called out to recreational water users, such as stricken paddleboarders, or drunken revellers from nearby Brighton. But recently the team has seen more and more vulnerable people. ‘It’s the cost-of-living crisis. People are getting desperate,’ says Williams.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution turns 200 next month, the oldest organisation of its kind in the world. To many, this anniversary will be unremarkable – after all, as an island nation, the RNLI’s existence seems unquestionable. It’s an unimpeachably British institution.

Yet the anniversary finds the RNLI at perhaps the most difficult moment in its history. Since 2018, the charity has been inextricably associated with the small-boat crisis in the Channel. In 2022, around 46,000 people attempted the crossing. In the first half of last year (the last time for which figures were available), about 11,500 were detected – a 10 per cent fall from the same period in 2022. Nonetheless, the RNLI saved 108 lives responding to migrant call-outs in 2022 – 20 per cent of all those it saved.

The Prime Minister has staked his premiership on solving the small-boats crisis, making it one of his ‘five pledges’ and concocting the Rwanda plan to put a stop to the illegal people smugglers. By responding to distress calls, some argue the RNLI aids the traffickers. 

Others suggest the frequent call-outs are placing an unsustainable strain on the small communities, such as Dungeness in Kent, which most often respond to them. In 2021, Nigel Farage claimed the charity had become ‘a taxi service for illegal immigration’.

In comparison to other European countries, the UK’s refugee intake is small. According to the UN Refugee Agency, for example, Germany took in 2.5 million refugees last year; in the same time period, 93,300 people claimed asylum in the UK.

Still, there is something indisputably emotive about the Channel crossings. As I was writing this article, after a few weeks without an attempt, five migrants were killed off the French coast. Around 70 had tried to launch a dinghy near Boulogne in the middle of the night. It capsized. Some drowned. Others perished of hypothermia after attempting to stay afloat in the 7C water.

The RNLI was the eccentric dream of an eccentric man. Its founder, Sir William Hillary, was brought up in a Quaker family in Liverpool but left the city in his 20s to see the world. An adventurer, he became equerry to the son of King George III and sailed around Sicily in an open boat. 

He also conceived a scheme to raise a private army in Essex – one of his many outlandish wheezes. Having come into a fortune, he squandered it and fled to the Isle of Man to escape his debtors. ‘But part of him never lost that Quaker core to his being,’ says Hayley Whiting, the RNLI’s archivist. ‘He wanted to help others.’

Living on the Isle of Man, one clear way Hillary saw of doing that was through a nationalised lifeboat service. At the time, shipping lanes were the busy heartbeat of the economy and lifeboat services were patchy and private. In a pamphlet published in 1823, Hillary called for ‘a large body of men… in constant readiness to risk their own lives for the preservation of those whom they have never known or seen, merely because they are fellow creatures in extreme peril’.

Almost immediately, his idea caught the imagination of the great and good. After all, this was the era of grand plans, buoyed by early imperial self-confidence and philanthropic paternalism. Among the documents in the RNLI’s archive are the notes from the charity’s inaugural meeting – then called the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. Held at the City of London Tavern on 4 March 1824, among the signatories were the Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, the campaigner William Wilberforce – and, for good measure, King George IV became patron.

‘The RNLI is unique,’ says Whiting. ‘We’ve been here since 1824. We’ve weathered two world wars and a pandemic. The idea has been passed down through generations of our crews – whatever the call, they’ll go. They’re here to save people at sea, no matter who they are.’

The RNLI is an independent charity – yet it is also the UK’s primary at-sea rescue service. ‘Shouts’ are directed by the Coastguard and, as many in the organisation told me, lifeboats cannot choose which they respond to. Often crews won’t know the nature of the distress call until they are kitted up and at sea. To some, this universality is precisely the issue.

‘Lots of people in the south-east feel the RNLI is being used and abused by the Government,’ says David Wimble, a councillor for Romney Marsh in Kent. Wimble spent 30 years with the RNLI, yet grew increasingly disillusioned with its ‘professionalisation’ and its part in the small-boats crisis. ‘The people of Romney Marsh support their lifeboat crews, but they are getting very fatigued that they are being used as a pick-up service to help take people to Dover. And the crews are getting fed up with it.’

‘Once the Coastguard puts in a call, the lifeboat can’t refuse,’ says former coxswain Patrick Richardson, who joined the Dungeness lifeboat in 1959, retiring in ’97 after 38 years of service. ‘It puts the crew in an impossible position.’

Still, he argues, it’s only those members of the public who ‘don’t know how the service works’ who complain about the RNLI’s work. ‘Locals are OK with it, but [others] don’t know how frightening it can be to be in a small boat in the Channel.’

I tried several times to speak to the current crew of the Dungeness lifeboat. Each time, the RNLI’s comms teams declined the requests. They told me that, in the charity’s 200th year, they preferred to focus on other aspects of its work. Wimble says this approach is unhelpful. 

‘The crews have been told to direct all enquiries to the press office,’ he reports. ‘They’re not allowed to talk about it. [They should] tell people the truth – don’t stonewall them. The UK will always help people in crisis, but unless we shut our borders, nothing is going to change.’

Late last year, I visited Mark Dowie, the chief executive of the RNLI, at its sprawling headquarters on Poole Harbour. Residential training centre, boat-building yard and archive centre, the campus is an impressive reminder of how far the RNLI has come from William Hillary’s original vision. It’s now a £230 million a year outfit, with nearly 2,000 permanent employees and close to 10,000 volunteers. When I asked him about the migrant boats, Dowie rejected the idea that the RNLI wasn’t engaging with the crisis.

‘I’m very emotionally connected to this – because it’s the RNLI’s purpose,’ says Dowie, who steps down this June after five years in charge. ‘The day the RNLI starts judging who it is picking up is the day we lose our reason for being.’ He points out that, while the topic dominates headlines, it makes up ‘only three per cent’ of the shouts the RNLI attends.

I ask whether it has changed public attitudes to the RNLI. ‘Right-thinking people feel very positively about the humanitarian work the RNLI is doing,’ he says. Dowie spent time in the Royal Navy before a career in business, and he still speaks with the sturdy robustness of a naval officer. 

‘To give an example,’ he went on, ‘I got a letter recently from a lady who said she was very proud that the first people from the UK these migrants met were the crews of the RNLI. Of course, I can’t ignore those who feel differently. But I’m absolutely convinced it’s the right thing to do.’

Since its foundation, the RNLI has relied on volunteer crews and donations to stay afloat. In fact, the only time it has taken any government funding was between 1854 and 1868 when the organisation looked in danger of running out of cash. Maintaining this financial independence is key, argues Dowie. ‘We’re an apolitical organisation. I’m not paid to have opinions [about a political solution]. I’m here to ensure this country has a first class search and rescue service.’

In 2022, the RNLI’s total income was £221 million, with about 64 per cent from legacy donations in wills. (The rest was made up of ad hoc donations and commercial trade, including in its 171 shops.) Dowie points out that this figure has remained consistent throughout the small-boats crisis – in 2019, for instance, wills made up 66 per cent of its income. Still, the charity can’t afford complacency. 

On average, it costs £3,000 to train and equip a crew member over the course of a year. Meanwhile, launching and maintaining an all-weather boat of the kind I sailed in costs tens of thousands. (The RNLI said it was impossible to give an exact figure for how much each shout costs.) If donations ceased tomorrow, the charity would have operational reserves for seven months. It is, Dowie admits, ‘a very tight collar’.

Among the joys of the RNLI’s archive is a sumptuously illustrated newsletter commemorating one of the first ‘Lifeboat Saturdays’. These were the brainchild of a Manchester philanthropist, Sir Charles Macara, who transformed the fortunes of the RNLI in 1891. 

A few years earlier, the crews at Lytham St Annes and Southport had been summoned when a German boat, the Mexico, capsized in heavy seas and thick fog. Due to a miscommunication, the lifeboats weren’t informed that they were no longer needed and both sunk, killing 27 crew – the worst loss of life in the charity’s history.

To raise money for their children and widows, Macara organised for the salvaged lifeboats to be dragged through the streets of Manchester, before launching them on a nearby lake. ‘It was an extraordinary thing to do,’ says Whiting. ‘This was an inland, industrial city. A lot of people would have never seen the sea before, let alone a lifeboat.’ 

Macara’s showmanship paid off: the first Lifeboat Saturday raised more than half a million pounds in today’s money. And since then, from collection tins to Blue Peter appeals – which bought 28 lifeboats in the programme’s history – donations have provided the bulk of the RNLI’s funding.

Until recently, the RNLI’s volunteers were largely drawn from the fishing communities it served. And they paid the heavy price for what was arduous, dangerous work. Near the entrance to the RNLI’s Poole headquarters, there’s a sinuous sculpture paying tribute to the more than 600 volunteers killed at sea since its foundation. Among the most recent names are the eight-man crew of the lifeboat Solomon Browne.

In December 1981, it launched from Penlee Harbour in Cornwall to come to the aid of the coaster Union Star. In hurricane-force waves and mountainous seas, a coastguard helicopter saw the lifeboat battle to come alongside the stricken ship. But after watching four crew escape from the Union Star’s deck, the helicopter had to turn around to refuel and lost radio contact. By the time it returned, the lifeboat had vanished. It’s the last time an entire lifeboat crew has been lost in action. Janet Madron, whose husband Stephen was killed, was chosen to represent the RNLI at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

These days, only 10 per cent of the more than 5,700 volunteer crew have a maritime background and, thanks to improved training, navigation and equipment, the risk is greatly reduced. The worry now is the effect of repeated exposure to traumatic experiences on crews, especially those responding to the shouts involving migrant boats. ‘We’ve seen incredible distress in the Channel,’ notes Dowie.

In response, crews have had to employ new equipment and techniques, such as a floating platform which allows them to bring mass casualties in the water swiftly aboard. ‘With small boats, what’s surprising is that more [migrants] don’t drown,’ observes Richardson, the ex-coxswain at Dungeness. ‘Some of these vessels are only lashed together, they fall to pieces. They get a puncture and the whole lot goes down, then everyone is in the water in the busiest shipping lane in the world.’

For the last few years, the RNLI has run a counselling service for its crews. In 2019, 130 crew took it up; last year, it was 171. Yet most people I spoke to in the RNLI agreed that it was the other crew members, ‘the RNLI family’, who provided the most support in times of need. ‘You see some shocking things,’ says Simon ‘Tuggy’ Tugwell, the assistant coxswain at Shoreham, who has served for 41 years. ‘Sometimes that can play tricks on your mind. But you always do your best. We can all be out searching with the best kit, everything we need. But you can’t…’ ‘Save everyone,’ I finish. ‘Yes,’ he nods.

Since its foundation, the RNLI has saved an estimated 150,000 lives. During the Second World War, it pulled more than 3,400 troops from the beaches of Dunkirk as well as numerous airmen shot down over the Channel. Since 2001, it has run a lifeguard service across 242 beaches in the UK; in 2022, they saved 117 lives. It also teaches water safety courses in developing countries, such as Bangladesh, where drowning is one of the common causes of child mortality.

Yet despite this constant evolution, Dowie believes its essence remains true to Hillary’s original mission. It saves lives at sea – whoever they may be. ‘The time, dedication, passion and courage that all our crews give is a very human thing,’ he says. ‘We’re a very good example of the generosity of spirit which exists in these islands and we’re going to be needed for a long, long time to come.’

For the Shoreham crew, though, such concerns about the RNLI’s legacy are far away. Like the 200 years of volunteers before them, out on the water, their world is simple. It’s the sea, the crew – and the call. As one puts it: ‘My pager goes off and I’m at the boathouse. Then I’m on a boat, and away we go.’ 

This story originally appeared in The Telegraph Magazine, which you can read online here.

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