Chiswick RNLI celebrates 20 years of search and rescue

Images above: Chiswick lifeboat rescues

In January 2022 Chiswick RNLI and the other three Thames lifeboat stations celebrate 20 years of search and rescue on the tidal river. The stations at Chiswick and Tower Bridge are now the busiest lifeboat stations in the whole of the UK and Ireland, but it took a major disaster for the need for an emergency service on the river to be realised.

The judge in the inquiry into the tragic sinking of the Marchioness in which 51 people drowned, recommended that the tidal Thames needed a dedicated search and rescue service. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution stepped in and established four lifeboat stations which became operational on 2 January 2002. Three of these, including Chiswick, have crew on standby 24/7.

No one anticipated how busy the Thames stations would be. Altogether 4,308 people have been rescued and 622 lives saved.

Alongside the operational side, Chiswick RNLI’s education and fund-raising volunteers work in the community. Thousands of children have learnt about the RNLI from school visits and visits to the station where the duty crew demonstrate the capabilities of their craft.

A fund-raising comedy night at the George IV is now an annual event (with Covid exception in 2021) as is the stall at the Chiswick House dog show each September. Many local businesses have supported the comedy nights and regular talks.

Above: a cat is rescued from the river in 2020

Incidents over the last 20 years

There are many memorable and many tragic incidents from the last 20 years, some of which The Chiswick Calendar has reported on. In total to date Chiswick crews have saved 179 lives and rescued 1,828 people.

Stand-outs include:

During 2015, 60 Boat Race spectators were cut off by the tide. The rescue was widely reported and broadcast on BBC News.

2007 there were 50 racing rowers rescued, whose boats sank during one stormy weekend.

2008 a mother and baby were recovered from the water in Isleworth.

2013 the Chiswick crew went to the aid of a broken down passenger vessel with 122 passengers.

2021 Chiswick lifeboat crew featured in a popular TV documentary series Saving Lives at Sea after it rescued an ungrateful cat the previous year. His family were unaware he had been stranded and rescued until they saw the rescue on the news.

Animals play quite a large part in their day to day work. Rescuing dogs who have gone for a swim and got into trouble, and their owners who have gone in after them, is something which happens quite a lot.

The Chiswick crew transported Freddie the seal to South Essex Wildlife Hospital in 2021 after he was attacked by a dog, though his injuries were so bad he had to be put down. They were also involved in the attempted rescue of a baby minke whale in 2021. The whale needed to be put down after getting stuck in Teddington Weir.

Image above: Chiswick RNLI volunteers

RNLI gets record funding year after right-wing attacks

The rescue service is such an essential part of the emergency services it is easy to forget it is entirely voluntary. Funding is a continuing battle, though this year nationally the RNLI is on course for the highest annual fundraising total in its near 200-year history. Donations swelled after the charity attracted huge public support following right wing attacks for helping save the lives of asylum seekers at risk of drowning in the Channel.

The RNLI said it has received a significant increase in support, with online donations rising by 50% in 2021. The UK’s network of RNLI volunteers say they have been inundated with donations and messages of support after high-profile attacks from individuals such as Nigel Farage and elements of the media, who have called the charity “woke” for fulfilling its humanitarian mission to save lives at sea.

Jayne George, the RNLI’s fundraising director said the hostility appeared to have had the opposite effect to what its architects would have wanted.

Above: a video by Chiswick Lifeboat commemorating 20 years of search and rescue

Number of rescues show how essential the service is, says Chiswick station manager

Chiswick RNLI station manager Wayne Bellamy was involved in setting up the RNLI search and rescue service on the Thames in 2001 and has been running the station ever since. He said:

‘Following the inquiry into the Marchioness tragedy it was clear that a dedicated search and rescue service on the tidal Thames was needed. Over the last twenty years 622 lives saved and 4308 people rescued shows how essential this service is.

“Our contribution at Chiswick with 179 lives saved and 1828 people rescued shows that the upper tideway is not the quieter stretch some thought it would be; though not really surprising if you see our stretch of river as equivalent to 25 miles of busy coastline with several million people living close by.

“Chiswick lifeboat station is one of three which has a duty crew of four on standby 24/7 with a launch time of 90 seconds and arrival on scene within 15 minutes, though the typical time is usually much less than this. This is only possible with the dedication of full-time crew and a panel of over 60 volunteers working 12 hour shifts. We have established a close working relationship with the PLA and the other blue light services on the river and work seamlessly together on major incidents.

“When they see the scale of life saving activity of the Thames lifeboats people are often surprised to hear that the life saving service run by the RNLI is entirely funded by public donations; we are very grateful for the local and national support that makes it all possible.”

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

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