Me, the coast guard and the RNLI

posted 14 Jun 2015, 03:35 by Dominic Thwaites   [ updated 14 Jun 2015, 04:05 ]
In light of my recent experience of getting rescued by the RNLI, would you like to know more about this symbiotic relationship? Of course you would.

The coast guard is the source of maritime safety and weather information as well as co-ordinator of any general situations that may arise at sea. Because I am sailing through unfamiliar waters on my own I always inform them of each of my passage plans before I start and let them know when I have completed it. I have also registered with their (voluntary) safety scheme called CG66 which means they know exactly what sort of boat I have and the equipment it has onboard. So, whenever I am out at sea they know about me. Many sailors don't bother to involve the coast guard as closely as I do, but I like to to do this and they like to be informed, If anything untoward happens I call them up and inform them of the change in circumstances. Again, in many cases this is precautionary but as a single-hander it's good to have a professional "partner".

When you involve the coast guard with your situation they then assume a certain level of responsibility for your well being and thus can make their own decisions as to how to direct that situation. I think this is what some sailors feel uncomfortable about. But I'm fine with that. They certainly do not assume remote command of your boat and they generally continue to ask you what you would like to do.

You contact the coast guard on your VHF radio on channel 16. If you make a "May Day" call this an emergency call indicating you need immediate assistance as you have a life threatening situation on your hands. In this situation the coast guard gather as much information as possible and, if appropriate, call the RNLI to go rescue, no questions asked.

Any other kind of call is more relaxed and this is how it was for me when my engine broke down on the North coast of Scotland. Once I'd established the engine would not immediately restart, I called the coast guard to inform them of my situation. They asked me "Do I need assistance?" (which is a typical response) to which I responded in the negative. But I did ask if they could find out two things for me: a) when I could expect some wind so that I could at least sail somewhere and b) if my current drift rate and direction would put me in any danger in the mean time.

Once you're in an ongoing situation like this, one generally keeps up a dialogue with the coast guard. I said I'd call them again within the hour to let them know how my engine "repairs" were going. They also came back to me with the information requested as above which was that it would be some hours before any wind would materialise and that I could drift back to a rocky headland in a few hours too. So left to my own devices the situation would get worse.

I told them I was still not having any luck with the engine. It was at this point that the coast guard made their own decision. They said that if I did not fix the engine within the next hour they WILL send a lifeboat out to me. As it happened, it was only about 15 minutes later when I discovered the fault lay with a seized water pump which could not be fixed at sea. So I called them again and said that I'm not going to get it fixed so they may as well get the lifeboat going now rather than later.

The coast guard issued a "Request to launch" to the RNLI. As opposed to a "May Day", the RNLI then make their own assessment of the situation and may recommend alternatives; In my case they obviously decided that a rescue was the best option. The coast guard did ask me if there were any other vessels in the vicinity who could help. Nearby vessels are often the best option to lend a hand, but in my case I was the only one out there! 

Once the decision to launch the lifeboat had been made the rest was just execution. But I learned a few things about the Thurso lifeboat station:

You can see my "shout" listed on their site at 10:40 23/05/15. A fairly mundane collect and tow operation for them. They knew my location (Lat/Long) from the coast guard and out they went to that location only to find no one there! They called me on channel 16 (ALL boats must listen on Ch 16) and asked me if I could see them. Although there was no wind there was a big swell in the sea and so it was not easy to see very far for very long. Anyway, I could not see them and we exchanged my position again and they were about 5 miles away! Clearly the position they'd got from the coast guard was wrong. Once we were in visual contact we switched to a "working" VHF channel and they told me what they were going to do to set the tow up. Essentially they throw me a line attached to a tow bridle that I fix to secure points at the front of the boat. They then let out about 50 meters of big thick tow rope and off we went at about 6.5 knots. The tow rope is "spongy" and so the boat never snatched and it was quite a smooth ride. It took 3 hours to get back to Scrabster (it took them an hour to get out to me).

Thurso has the biggest type of lifeboat and it can seat 24 people including a minimum crew of 5. The Coxswain (driver) and an Engineer being mandatory (Wing and Andy, in this case). These guys are employed by the RNLI though their on-call availability is voluntary. Other crew members are entirely voluntary. I met one who was a local fisherman a couple of days later as he went off lobster potting. He said he was just about to go fishing when my call came through and so he had to abandon that little trip!

For a "May Day" call ALL local  RNLI people are bleeped and they all hot foot it to the station. As soon as the Coxswain judges that enough people with the right experience have gathered off they go.For a "Request to launch" only designated senior RNLI bods get bleeped and they then make a decision as to whether to launch and subsequently the volunteers get bleeped.

This "class B' Thurso lifeboat looks the dogs bollocks to me. They have several watertight bulkheads and can survive being rolled 360 degrees (i.e. can be fully inverted). In such a case the engine air intakes automatically shut and the engines automatically reduce to idle so that when the boat rights itself it doesn't suddenly take off like a rocket. In other words, pretty unsinkable unless it was torpedoed or nuked! You get fully strapped into all the seats and half of the seats have got a full suspension system. These bad boys are designed for the rough and tumble.

As are the crew mind. There's a whole raft of courses that RNLI volunteers go through and it typically takes 2 years before you've done the whole syllabus. All very professional and impressive.

I asked what a typical shout for an RNLI station would be. No easy answer and it very much depends on the area concerned. Where I was the main activity is fishing and I gathered that half of the calls tended to be for fishing vessels whose engines have broken down or tackle has fouled their propellors or rudders. Pleasure vessels (like me) are relatively infrequent (though in the Solent, no doubt very frequent). They also deal with shore based accidents (Cliff falls etc) a  fair bit.  Where there are big high bridges, suicide rescues seem to feature! So a mixed bag, I guess.