Chiswick RNLI’s rescue of drifting party boat featured in BBC Saving Lives at Sea

Image: RNLI intercept the drifting Royalty vessel; Chiswick Lifeboat

Watch “dramatic video” on Saving Lives at Sea TV – Tuesday 14 May, BBC2 8pm

Chiswick Lifeboat’s rescue of a drifting party boat on the River Thames will be featured in the BBC’s Saving Lives at Sea series on Tuesday evening (14 May 2024).

A dramatic video from the crews’ helmet cameras will be featured, as well as interviews with the crew involved.

At 9.50pm on 7 July 2023, the crew on Chiswick Lifeboat were debriefing after a casualty care exercise at Broomhouse Pier when Thames Commander Mark Turrell noticed a large passenger vessel manoeuvring strangely.

Moments later, a call came through on asking the lifeboat for immediate assistance, the passenger vessel Royalty had lost propulsion with 50 partygoers on board.

The lifeboat responded at once as the tide swept the passenger boat towards a group of houseboats. The lifeboat crew quickly set up an alongside tow as that would allow better control.

Mark was able to speak directly to the captain via the radio and his own crew on their helmet comms. The vessel still had steerage so the lifeboat provided propulsion while the captain managed the steering. The vessel was towed by the lifeboat a mile to Putney Pier, its original destination.

The lifeboat was attached to the starboard side of the Royalty so crew-member Tim Hughes boarded Royalty to provide eyes from the port side.

The RNLI E-Class lifeboats, unique to the Thames, have towed larger vessels before but this was a different challenge as there were over 50 partygoers on board. At 110 tons and 100 feet long Mark was apprehensive about how the alongside tow would work:

“We were confident that our lifeboat would be up to the job but relieved that the 900 horse power E-Class was more than capable of making way against the tide with such a large vessel.”

Image: RNLI escorting the drifting Royalty vessel to safety; Chiswick Lifeboat

Partygoers “unaware” of the danger

The next challenge was negotiating the arches of Putney Bridge. Normally the Royalty would proceed in the centre of the arch but this would put the lifeboat under the lowest part of the arch. Mark asked the captain to go as far to the south of the centreline as he judged was safe and asked his crew to lower the lifeboat’s mast and aerials.

After successfully negotiating the bridge, Mark decided that the normal method of allowing the outgoing tide to ease the Royalty onto the pier could result in a sudden jolt, risking injuries onboard.

Using the precise control allowed by the E-class’s twin water jets, Mark was able to gently bring the Royalty alongside. Up to this point the dancing partygoers were unaware that their river trip ended with propulsion provided by another vessel.

“It was a challenging rescue but went smoothly, none of the partygoers noticed that there was an extra blue light in the disco!” said Mark

‘The situation could have had a very different outcome, it was satisfying to confirm that the capability of the E-Class and the extensive training of our crew, Adam Cairns, Tim Hallac and Tim Hughes, allowed us to carry out a seamless rescue for over 50 people.’

At the time, Chiswick lifeboat station manager Wayne Bellamy commented:

‘The RNLI search and rescue service on the tidal Thames has its roots in the campaign of the families who lost loved ones in the Marchioness disaster when 51 people drowned.

“The choice of lifeboats and location of lifeboat stations was established to deal with a similar incident. We daily attend all sorts of incidents but always have in mind that we may need to deal with a large passenger vessel with many people on board. It is gratifying that all our preparations have paid off in this rescue.’

Chiswick RNLI lifeboat station is the second busiest in the UK and Ireland. Since The RNLI search and rescue service on the Thames started in 2002, Chiswick Lifeboat has attended over 4,000 incidents and rescued over 1,750 people. The RNLI is entirely funded by public donations.