21 August 2017

Beep! Beep! Beep! 11 memorable RNLI pager moments

When the pager goes off, our lifesavers drop whatever they’re doing to answer the call. It’s all part of being a lifeboat volunteer. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to leave what you’re doing and go. It can sometimes be awkward, embarrassing, or even heartbreaking to answer the call to save lives at sea. It’s just part of the sacrifice our lifesavers choose to make.

We asked our brave volunteers to tell us their most memorable pager stories and as you can imagine, there were quite a few. Here are 11 of their funny, awkward, and moving pager moments.

1) Leave the meter running

Littlehampton Crew Member and full-time Taxi Driver Richard Howlett was driving his cab when the shout came in.

‘It was mid-afternoon when my pager went off. I had just picked up a lady who was going to the supermarket. I said to the lady: “I’m sorry, can I drop you at the cab rank on the way through?” The lady replied: “I would quite like to see the lifeboat being launched.” She’d never seen the lifeboats in action before, so I jokingly said she could watch from the car and she replied: “That would be lovely!”’

Richard with his taxi outside Littlehampton Lifeboat StationPhoto: RNLI/Andy Lee
Richard with his taxi outside Littlehampton Lifeboat Station

Richard drove to the station and parked up outside. While he joined his fellow crew members in getting changed and launching the lifeboat, the woman was sitting in his taxi watching it all unfold.

‘We got stood down outside the harbour entrance and returned to the boathouse. To my amazement, the lady was still in my cab watching it all. So I quickly gave my apologies to the guys, got changed, and took her on to the supermarket.

‘The meter was on but she did end up with a free trip that day - I couldn’t charge her! She told me it was the most excitement she'd had in ages, so a happy customer.’

2) Short back and one side

Now a crew member with Richard at Littlehampton RNLI, Howard Crompton was caught a little short when he was based at Aberdovey Lifeboat Station.

Aberdovey lifeboat volunteers at sea onboard their B class inshore lifeboat Hugh
MilesPhoto: RNLI/Nicholas Leach
Aberdovey lifeboat volunteers at sea onboard their B class inshore lifeboat Hugh Miles

‘I was sat at the local hairdressers across the road from the station. Halfway through, my pager went off. A fishing boat had broken down and needed assistance.’

Having quickly made his way to the lifeboat station, all thoughts of the state of his hair quickly left his mind. ‘I was on the lifeboat and my mind was on the job at hand. Afterwards, when washing down the boat, you normally have a conversation with the other crew members about what you were doing when the pager went off. In this case, it was pretty clear what I was doing!’

When the shout was over, Howard returned to the hairdressers, only to find that it was closed. Despite his pleas, he had to wait until the morning to get the job finished. ‘The hairdresser is my work colleague’s wife so I’m pretty sure she did it on purpose! That night at the pub, I got quite a few different looks, but it made for a good story to tell.’

3) Superheroes on the streets of Cornwall

Anyone enjoying a few drinks in Looe last New Year’s Eve might have been forgiven for thinking they'd had one too many when they saw Superman, Spider-Man, Robin and Bananaman running through the streets.

Looe RNLI superheroes running to the shout on New Year's EvePhoto: RNLI/Ian Foster
Looe RNLI superheroes running to the shout on New Year's Eve

But it wasn’t a team of superheroes running to the rescue. It was the crew of Looe RNLI, who had left their New Year’s Eve party to answer a real-life call for help.

Flares had been spotted out over the waters between Hannafore and Looe Island, so the call had come in to search for those in distress. It turned out to be a false alarm and the crew members were allowed to return to their party after searching for over an hour.

4) Baby kicks

Being a lifeboat volunteer can often mean there is a risk of missing out on important family moments. For Poole RNLI Helm and Lifeboat Trainer Dave Riley, he almost missed out on something he had been waiting a long time to experience.

‘My other half, Debs, had been feeling the baby kick for months. I would place my hand on her tummy in the hope of feeling something but nothing. She would often say: “Did you feel that? You must have felt that one?” But no I didn’t, until that one evening.

‘As usual she said: “The baby is really kicking now, try and see if you can feel it.” After about 5 minutes I felt it. 10 seconds later I felt it again. Then 10 seconds later my pager went!

‘Excitement and emotion turned into the lifeboat adrenaline and I rushed down to the station with a huge smile on my face. I remember coming back in on the boat that night telling the crew. I was feeling so chuffed to say the least.’

Dave with his daughter BethanPhoto: RNLI/Nathan Williams
Dave with his daughter Bethan

Three years later and the pager is still a part of family life. ‘My daughter is 3 years old now and is beginning to understand. If the pager goes now she’ll run round and say: “Beep! Beep!” She’s getting very used to it. Any orange boat she sees, she calls: “Daddy’s boat!”’

5) Birthday surprise

Trainee Helm David Sheldon of Blyth RNLI had planned something special for his daughter Marley’s 13th birthday. ‘I had finished work at lunchtime to surprise her by picking her up from school. I got home from work and changed, ready to go to the school, when the call came in - the sound never gets any better!’

David with daughter Marley onboard Blyth's B class lifeboat Vic and Billy WhiffenPhoto: RNLI/Robin Palmer
David with daughter Marley onboard Blyth's B class lifeboat Vic and Billy Whiffen

A fisherman was stuck on the East Pier at Blyth. A really high spring tide and rough conditions meant the rescue would not be simple. Both of Blyth’s lifeboats were involved as they tried to bring the fisherman to safety.

The rescue footage does not show how dangerous conditions had become,’ David explains. ‘It was one of the most difficult rescues I’ve faced. It took a long time and involved the Coastguard helicopter.

‘A few hours later, I was back home. I had missed the family meal, cakes and presents. But my daughter hugged me and said she was proud of me and my fellow lifeboat volunteers and not to worry about missing the party.

‘No time is convenient for the pager to sound, but it’s what we do. We confront the danger others are trying to escape from.

‘The RNLI is a massive part of all our families, and I know that no crew member can do it without their support.’

6) ‘Daddy, daddy, look what I can do!’

Dave Cocks, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Redcar RNLI, knows what it’s like to miss out on an important family moment.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Dave was teaching his 4-year-old son how to ride his bike outside their home. He had just taken the stabilisers off and was about to watch his boy cycle by himself for the first time when the pager went off.

Dave called his wife to watch their son as he went to help launch the station’s lifeboat to rescue a stricken fisherman. When Dave returned home, he saw his son riding without stabilisers. ‘Daddy, daddy, look what I can do!’

‘It was heartbreaking to miss the moment when my son learned to ride a bike,’ says Dave. ‘But as a volunteer for the RNLI, you need to be willing to drop everything to save lives at sea when the pager beeps.’

Watch a reenactment of this precious moment filmed for our annual Mayday fundraising campaign:

7) ‘Excuse me, Miss? Can I go to the lifeboats?’

It’s not just seasoned veterans who have to get used to the pager going off at awkward times. Fife schoolgirl and Anstruther RNLI Crew Member Danielle Marrs was at school when her first shout came in.

‘I was assisting a junior pupil in a science class when my pager sounded,’ says Danielle. ‘It was a strange feeling as it was the first time I'd heard the pager go off in school and the teachers and staff were great to allow me to exit so quickly.’

Danielle (left) with fellow Crew Member Louise McNicoll after their first shout togetherPhoto: RNLI/Martin Macnamara
Danielle (left) with fellow Crew Member Louise McNicoll after their first shout together

Months of training exercises and ropework soon came in handy as the lifeboat crew helped bring a 9m vessel with mechanical failure back to the harbour. Watch the tow here.

‘The shout itself went exactly to plan, as we regularly practise towing the all-weather lifeboat with our D class inshore lifeboat and vice versa. It certainly was a different feeling doing it in a shout scenario.’

8) A romantic anniversary dinner cut short

Lee Jackson, Helm at Staithes and Runswick Lifeboat Station, was just settling down for a special dinner with his wife. ‘It was quite a nice summer’s evening and it happened to be my wedding anniversary. So I booked a table at a local restaurant for an anniversary meal. We had just sat down, looking at the menu, and I saw somebody run past the window. It was Luke, one of the other lifeboat crew members.’

Two teenage boys had been spotted being swept out to sea by Trainee Crew Member Sam Shelley so Sam had alerted the Coastguard and his fellow crew members. ‘I presumed it must have been a call-out, because the pagers hadn’t gone by then. So I had to make my apologies and run out of the restaurant to the lifeboat station.’

Hear Lee and Sam's account of that evening and see the rescue footage in this video:

Lee adds: ‘Once I had left the restaurant, one of my wife’s friends joined her - her husband is also on the crew. She enjoyed a starter and some Prosecco, before I got back for dessert!’

9) ‘I do’ then ‘I’m off!’

When lifeboat crew get married, it’s not uncommon to have fellow volunteers in the wedding party. So the risk of the pager going off is substantially increased. Lough Swilly lifeboat volunteer Francy Burns had just stood up to give his speech as groom after the wedding dinner, when the pagers went off.

Newlyweds Francy and Helen onboard the station's Shannon class lifeboat Derek BullivantPhoto: Jay Doherty Photography
Newlyweds Francy and Helen onboard the station's Shannon class lifeboat Derek Bullivant

‘It was certainly a day of mixed emotions,’ says Francy. ‘I had just married the most beautiful and amazing woman but when I saw the crew stand up to head to the lifeboat station during my speech, my first thoughts were to follow them.’

While several wedding guests ran out the door to assist a vessel that had been drifting for 3 hours, Coxswain Mark Barnett assured Francy they had enough crew and he could stay where he was and enjoy the day.

‘You never know what you are launching to but thankfully it was fairly straightforward. Helen understands how I feel about the lifeboat and she is fully supportive. You never know, I might even persuade her to sign up too!’

10) A blessing in disguise

The knowledge that the pager can go off at any time can be a blessing in disguise. Kath Fisher, Crew Member at Penarth RNLI, found a rather unique use for its unpredictability.

Kath out on the lifeboat
Kath out on the lifeboat

‘When I was single last year and doing a bit of dating, I would mention at some point early on that I was on the lifeboat crew. So if it turned out to be a bad date, I had an easy get away by saying: "Oh, I had put my pager on silent, and it's just started going off. I'm going to have to go. Sorry!" It came in very handy.’

11) If you can’t beat them, join them!

Chris Missen, Crew Member at Porthcawl Lifeboat Station and a member of the RNLI Flood Rescue Team, recalls how his then girlfriend Jessica, now fiancée, had to quickly get used to dating a crew member.

RNLI Flood Rescue Team Member and Porthcawl Crew Member Chris MissenPhoto: RNLI/Robin Goodlad
RNLI Flood Rescue Team Member and Porthcawl Crew Member Chris Missen

‘We were going to a Christmas party when I got called to a flood rescue job. We were stood in our hallway, all dressed up for a night out, when I had to say to her: “I have to go.”’

The many occasions Chris had to stand up his girlfriend because of a call seemed to have an effect. But instead of dumping him, Jessica decided if you can’t beat them join them, and became a crew member herself. This can still cause problems, especially as they both work in the same chip shop!

‘We used to joke that we had to flip a coin to see who goes, but nine times out of ten we both go. It can look a bit suspicious for our customers, seeing two of the three staff members running out of the shop!’


Feeling inspired by the dedication of our lifesavers?

There are many ways you can get involved and support the RNLI.

Find out more in our volunteering pages.

Our volunteers talk about answering the call in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.