Monday, 13 February 2012


Yesterday - Sunday - was a chilly, overcast sort of day, but I felt a bit cooped up indoors, and so in the afternoon I fired up Fiona and we went off to Selsey.

Selsey is a small town at the southern tip of the flat bit of land that sticks out like an upside-down shark's fin into the English Channel east of the Isle of Wight. It's a landmark feature, if you're a bird flying along the coast. Indeed, the first thing I encountered after parking was an information board saying just that, and giving details of all the birds you might see. I suppose they all bank to port on a new 030 degree course as they pass Selsey Bill. What a sight. Selsey also has a well-known resident: Sir Patrick Moore, the famous astronomer. But I didn't bump into him.

My plan was to walk the half mile or so to the lifeboat station, and maybe take a look at the lifeboat if the place was open. I like lifeboats and all the brave work they are put to in all weathers, and never fail to pop £2 into the collection box if I visit a station. Because of course the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is largely funded by voluntary donations. It's one charity I have no reservations about at all.

The Selsey lifeboat is housed in its own little building full of winches and other stuff. At least one lifeboat, the one at Cromer in Norfolk, is housed at the end of a pleasure pier, but this one had its own little pier, very similar to the Bembridge lifeboat on the Isle of Wight, or, in more dramatic surroundings, the lifeboat at Porthstinian in Pembrokeshire. As at most places, the Selsey boat is launched down a sloping slipway straight into the sea, but some are launched by tractor, a driver pulling the boat into deep enough water - as with the boat at Wells-next-the-Sea, also in Norfolk. Here are some photos I've taken over the years of the setups at Cromer, Bembridge, Porthstinian, and Wells-next-the-Sea:

And here is the setup at Selsey, in shots I took yesterday:

I climbed the steps up to the pier gangway, and after walking down to the end, found the entranced door unlocked.

This was unexpected - it was half past three on a winter Sunday, and I thought it would be all closed up. Touching the door handle, the door suddenly opened out towards me, and there was a man in seagoing clothes! We both jumped, myself whooping in surprise. He was twenty minutes away from closing up for the afternoon, but welcomed me inside, and treated me to a one-to-one tour of the boat, or at least I was permitted to come onto the deck, and look inside from there.

I felt privileged, and in fact it was the first time I'd ever stepped onto a lifeboat. I suppose health and safety requirements usually rule this out. It was, for example, quite easy to bang your head on the radar mast, which was folded down. This was necessary so that the boat could be launched without damaging the mast, as the doors to the sea had limited height. My host told me many things about the boat, and I had several questions of my own. We agreed that despite speed and seaworthiness and carrying capacity being so vital, these requirements produced some of the most graceful designs found in boatbuilding. It was easy to see how such a boat inspired confidence, respect and pride in the hearts of its crew, who were after all risking their lives to assist others in distress on the sea, and utterly depended on their boat.

I asked how many could be saved, and where they were housed. The answer was, as many as could be packed in. The boat was so buoyant that within reason - and of course possibly beyond it - they could carry as many as could be got off. They were primarily put into a chamber that occupied most of the after part of the boat, but there was another space forward, although they'd have to hang on tightly if in there, as it would be pitching up and down pretty violently in a storm. The crew themselves - six of them - sat on special seats in a spacious bridge, surrounded by high-tech instruments. My host remarked that they were mostly fishermen, who might not have anything like all this gadgetry on their own boats. But they were well-trained, and slipped seamlessly into high-tech mode for every rescue. Everyone - crew and rescued - were sealed inside wave-proof compartments, so that it wouldn't matter if the boat was pushed under or rolled over - it would self-right, and let no water in.

The crew were all local. If an alarm was raised, they would drop everything and get to the lifeboat station as fast as possible. Their sea clothing, tagged with their names, was ready behind a curtain (I was shown this). While they donned their waterproofs, the twin diesel engines of the boat were fired up - with a special pipe clamped over the exhaust outlets to take the fumes out of the building, so that nobody got gassed before launch. The sea doors would be opened. My host opened these partly for me, so that I could see what the boat would be launched down into. Even though it was a calm day, there was clearly a strong sideways current running, and I could imagine how it might be in a storm, with the waves huge and confused. The activity in the run-up to a launch must be a picture of orderly haste. Impressively, from the first distress signal to launch usually took only ten minutes.

The boat had been last launched only a week before. On its return, it had been washed down with fresh water to take all the salt off, then polished up again. It looked immaculate, almost new.

We chatted a bit. My host was a retired naval man from Tyneside, too old to be an actual crewmember, who had quite naturally been drawn to looking after the boat as a retirement job. How appropriate that the present Selsey boat was of the 'Tyne' class! He told me it had been in service at Selsey for some six years, and was expected to be replaced in four years' time. Replaced but not scrapped - these vessels were passed on to other live-saving agencies. Its predecessor went to China, for example.

We talked about various aspects of life with boats. I made it quite clear that I knew very little about them, merely having been brought up by the seaside, but, encouraged by our rapport, I mentioned in passing a recent dream in which I had applied for a job as the PA to the managing director of a Littlehampton boat-building firm. The interview had begun conventionally, then it had been sidetracked as I showed unexpected interest and passion for the practical aspects of boat construction, with a visit to the yard, discussions with the skilled men, and eventually formulating a ongoing business plan that had the directors offering me a position without further formality. How strange was that? I didn't even know whether, in real lfe, there was still any boatbuilding anywhere along the Sussex coast! But the dream had been vivid, and possibly was pointing me in a direction to take. Something connected with the sea. Obviously, my seafaring Scandinavian blood.

As an uncontrived exercise in successful passing, by which I mean behaving naturally and not arousing any suspicions, this was surely rather a triumph. It was certainly a stiffer test than getting through a supermarket checkout without bother.

1 comment:

  1. It wasn't Captain Bird's Eye was it Lucy? Or is that the guy at the check-out in the supermarket? Hey, maybe you are on to something here, possible source for a job? A spur of the moment decision to go out might prove to be very rewarding later, who knows?

    Shirley Anne xxx


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