There is an initiation rite apparently. But it’s not as bad as you might think. Chiswick’s Lifeboat station relies on volunteers, as does the whole of the RNLI, as they receive no government funding. Georgie Cannock, 18, had her first day out on the river as an RNLI volunteer last week, and they haven’t put her off yet.
On the water for the first time
By Georgie Cannock
If you had told me a few years ago that at age 18, I’d be volunteering for the RNLI and racing down the River Thames on a lifeboat on a cold November morning, I think I would have said you were mad.
As a child, I spent my summers in Anglesey, North Wales raising money for our local lifeboat station, selling cakes or painted stones to passers-by on the beach and washing cars. The lifeboat station and RNLI were always important to me growing up, especially as a sailor, lover of water-sports and powerboat user, but I never once thought I’d be on crew myself.
That is, until 2018 when I took a powerboat course which happened to be run by a volunteer at the Trearddur Bay Lifeboat station. He showed us round the station, the Lifeboat and told us tales of rescues and how everything worked. That day, something clicked for me and I knew that volunteering for the RNLI was something I wanted to do. I loved the sea, I loved helping people, I loved boats and I thought “Why not?”, so the very next day I sent an application email off to my local lifeboat station, Chiswick RNLI.
Which brings us here – 7.30am on 22 November 2020. I’m stood on the balcony of Chiswick lifeboat station, watching the sun slowly rise and peek out above the trees lining the Thames. It’s so peaceful – the river is like glass and a gorgeous reflection of oranges and yellows is cast onto the water, perfectly complimenting the distant London skyline. It’s my first shift as a Volunteer Crew Member at Chiswick RNLI.
I was excited, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. Would we get an emergency to respond to? What if it’s something big? Am I really cut out to do this? What if I can’t get my kit on quick enough? And being the clumsy person that I am, what if I trip and fall into the water? Questions raced through my mind like the racing water of the Thames, but there was no time to overthink. We were due afloat on exercise at 8am, so myself Alistair and Mark (the other two volunteers on with me that day) donned our dry suits and lifejackets, were briefed for the day by helm James and headed down to the boat.
Being out on the water for the first time certainly felt surreal. Fully kitted up with helmet on, speeding along the river, wind in your face and all, it was definitely an exhilarating experience. It was here that I learned the basics of ‘watchkeeping’, and the importance of always being alert and communicating our surroundings with the Helm. To begin our morning exercise, we were ‘tasked’ to help rescue Father Christmas, who had broken down whilst delivering a Christmas tree. We set up a tow, took him back to safety and continued on towards Richmond.
Next up, after being shown some important locations along the river, I had my first go at driving the boat. Ensuring that each crew member can control and drive the boat if necessary is important, just in case anything should happen to the Helm. Even though I had driven a boat before, I quickly found out that it’s quite a bit harder than it looks! It’s made to look so easy, and even though I only tried simple turning and going at a very slow speed, trying to keep such a big boat on a straight-line path was quite a challenge.
After driving, I learned some basic skills such as recovering something out of the water (which we practiced with a fender), tying up the boat to a mooring, and how to handle ropes correctly, as they can be the most dangerous aspect of being on board the lifeboat. I also learned how to use the mobile radios using the correct call sign and such, by transferring onto a different vessel and radioing in to the lifeboat to come pick me up.
By now, it was late morning and we headed back to the station. London had woken up and the paths lining the sides of the river were beginning to fill up with people getting some fresh air amidst the national lockdown. Once we had got back to the station and cleaned down the boat, it was time for a cuppa and what I was told is one of the most important tests of all new recruits – can I make a good cup of tea? Luckily, I managed to pass and get everyone’s orders correct, so it was time for some lunch and to relax until boat checks in the afternoon.
Boat checks are vital to ensuring that all kit is in proper working order and occur at the beginning of every 4 day ‘set’ at the station. This was an extremely educational and helpful part of the day for me, as we inspected every item on the boat, checking everything was present, which helped remind me of the location of each item – something that is obviously very important for crew to know!
With boat checks finished, all the tasks for the day were completed. Sunset was also closing in too, meaning the rest of the afternoon was spent indoors waiting for any potential shouts, as well as brushing up on some knots. As the final hour of the day approached with no emergencies yet, the possibility of a late shout loomed.
After discussing this in the crew room, the others took it upon themselves to prank me by playing the sound of the phone (which rings when an emergency call has come in), whilst I was in the Ladies’! Luckily, I was just washing my hands, but the sudden adrenaline rush I got in that moment was immense. I practically flew to grab my kit, only to run in and see James, Alistair and Mark laughing at my panic. It really was quite funny and safe to say, I now feel officially inducted into the crew and know exactly what the phone sounds like!
Overall, it was an incredibly special day for me. I know that I have a lot to learn, however I’m excited to begin my journey with the RNLI at Chiswick and hope that this shift was the first of many.
Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar
See also: RNLI crew rescues ungrateful cat
See also: Glen Monroe, Chiswick RNLI helmsman
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