10 Lifeboat stations that keep us safe on Norfolk’s coast
PUBLISHED: 13:32 29 July 2020
The 10 Norfolk RNLI and independent lifeboat stations that keep us safe on Norfolk’s dangerous coast
It has been a baking summer’s day on the north-east coast of Norfolk. The wide sands are dotted with people enjoying the last hours of the glorious weather, picnicking, playing, sunbathing.
But the peace is broken by the roar of a powerful engine; an orange shape flashes past, a rooster-tail of spray kicking up behind it. It is the Hunstanton Flyer, a rescue hovercraft on its way to help save a group of sunseekers trapped by the notoriously fast-rising tide on Scolt Head Island at Brancaster.
Five teams, including the Hunstanton RNLI hovercraft, Wells RNLI inshore lifeboat and Hunstanton, Wells and Sheringham Coastguard rush to the scene – reports say there are 14 people trapped.
Luckily, this time it is good news; 13 of the stranded group manage to make it to shore on their own and the hovercraft picks up the last. It is a successful mission.
Two days later the Flyer is roaring out into the Wash near Heacham to rescue a man and a woman drifting out to sea on an inflatable lilo. Cold, wet, tired and frightened they are recovered two miles out to sea. Another happy ending – but the treacherous coast almost claimed two more victims.
For generations the 80-mile long Norfolk coastline has been watched over by brave men and women who put their own lives at risk to save others in trouble. Lifeboat crews from both independent stations and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have put to sea in terrible conditions to rescue mariners – and have sometimes paid the ultimate price.
For many years it was mostly fishermen, with their peerless knowledge of the swirling coastal currents and tides, who made up the crews. But things have changed.
Paul Watling is the new coxswain of the Cromer lifeboat, following in the oilskins of the legendary Henry Blogg, the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history. While Paul was born in Happisburgh, he doesn’t come from a seafaring family. “Dad was a farmer and I’m a mechanic by trade,” he says.
He has been involved in the RNLI at Cromer and Happisburgh for 32 years and also had a spell assessing equipment for the service from Cleethorpes to Portsmouth. But he’s delighted to be back at Cromer.
“I love it. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Since I joined the RNLI I’ve always loved doing it. I had 18-20 years as a volunteer and never missed any of the exercises,” he says. “It’s just a passion, really, and a commitment. If you’re going to do something, do it properly.”
Even though the cox makes all the key decisions on the boat Paul says it’s the whole crew that makes the boat – the coxswain is just there to bring it all together. “Even Henry Blogg needed a good crew!” he jokes. “If the crew and cox get on well you can’t beat it – all the crew look after each other and on a really horrible day you have to have that trust in each other, that everyone knows their job.”
Long service doesn’t diminish the excitement when the pager goes off for a ‘shout’. “You always get a buzz when you have a shout,” says Paul. “People say they don’t but they do.”
As cox he selects the crew for the job when he arrives at the boathouse. “If you’ve got a really horrible winter’s night, with the sea really rough, you’re going to pick a good, experienced crew that you know will be able to do what you want them to do.
“If it is a summer’s day you can get the youngsters more involved. They need to do service calls to get the experience,” he says.
Cromer’s slipway, at the end of the town’s famous pier, makes for an exciting-looking launch. “You get the boat ready, tipped up on the cradle and engine running and away you go. A lot of people think that it is a real rollercoaster ride going down the slipway but it’s quite a non-event really. It does look spectacular, though and if it’s a nice day you hear people cheering – it’s really nice!”
Community support is something that Wells-Next-the-Sea lifeboat crew member Simon Parkes values highly. “The lifeboat is so much a part of the community. Having a support network of crew families is really important to us.”
Simon, a nurse, joined the crew two and a half years ago, adding his medical skills to the diverse crew. “We’ve got electricians, builders, people who work in shipping, on the wind farm, on the Holkham estate all coming together when the pager goes off and all have different skills to bring,” says Simon.
He acknowledges that the fishermen, who traditionally made up the bulk of lifeboat crews in the past, still have a key role. “We are so grateful for the maritime experience that the fishermen bring because we know that if we’re out on an awful night they will make sure we are kept safe in terrible seas.”
The power of the sea was illustrated recently when Wells went to the aid of a 28ft yacht, Trouncer, which ran aground in Holkham Bay. The soaked and exhausted crew, battered by strong north-east winds, were rescued and the boat made safe and left for the night.
“By the time we went back to the yacht – and it was a sizeable yacht – next morning it was smashed to smithereens. If they had stayed on board overnight, they would have been lost at sea,” says Simon.
Wells has an inshore lifeboat and an all-weather vessel, the Doris Mann, which wears the crown of being the oldest RNLI boat in service, at 30 years old. She will be replaced shortly by a new Shannon class boat, powered by waterjets and bristling with technology. Simon is looking forward to the new vessel entering service.
“It is like driving a spaceship, with wonderful comfy seats that don’t bounce you around and everything controlled by a computer screen,” he says. It will be housed in a new boathouse and will make Wells one of the most up-to-date stations in the country.
Shaun Edwards manages the RNLI’s lifeboats from Hunstanton to Cromer and also looks after the lifeguarded beaches from Wells to Southwold.
For him the biggest recent challenge has been dealing with the Covid-19 situation. “Stations have been unable to do their usual exercises on boats out on the water,” he says. “So there has been online training instead.”
His perennial challenge operationally is the issue of visitors being stranded on the beaches by incoming tides.
“We had four consecutive days when people were cut off on Scolt Head,” he says. “So it might be a glorious sunny day, but there will be a bigger tide in the evening. People have had the day, when the tide is out, to go across on the sandbanks and then when the tide comes in, and it comes in quite rapidly, they find themselves cut off.”
They have been working with the Coastguard, National Trust (who own parts of the coastline) and Natural England to try and reduce incidents through education but, again, Covid-19 has scuppered their plans.
Shaun’s message to visitors is simple: “Come and have a fantastic time and enjoy yourselves but be aware of your surroundings and heed the safety advice, be aware of tidal cut-off and the tide, full-stop. Know how to ‘float to live’ and who to call in emergency.”
Shaun’s responsibility also extends to the RNLI Lifeguards – who this summer will be on duty at nine of the usual 16 beaches.
Norfolk’s independent lifesavers
Of course it is not only the RNLI which works to save lives off Norfolk’s beaches. Out of the ten stations dotted around the 80-odd miles of coastline four are independents: Mundesley, Sea Palling Hemsby and Caister.
Without the support of an umbrella national organisation the teams who crew and run these stations have additional challenges. “We tend to be forgotten by Joe Public, because when you say ‘lifeboat’ everybody thinks RNLI,” says Jen Roberts, secretary and radio operator at Sea Palling.
So fund-raising for the station – which costs £50,000 a year to run – is very much a local affair and has, as for most charities, been hammered by the lockdown. “All of our fund-raising events have been cancelled,” says Jen. She goes on to tell the slightly dispiriting tale of how, on a glorious June day, hundreds of people packed the beach – all potential users of the rescue service in an emergency.
“We put a collection bucket out at the station, on the fence. When we brought it in at the end of the day there wasn’t a penny in there,” she says. “It’s quite sad.”
They are still planning to have a scaled-down lifeboat day on the last bank holiday of this month, with a barbecue and refreshments, and also hope to get neighbouring Caister and Mundesley lifeboats to bring equipment along. The need to re-start the cash flow is imperative, says Jen. “Lifeboats only last so long and we are getting to the stage where our lifeboat is coming to the end of its life and we’re going to have to replace it – you’re looking at £110,000.”
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As well as needing financial support, Sea Palling is always looking for people to help keep the service running smoothly. “We’re always looking for volunteers,” says Jen, “whether it be crew, people who want to go out on the boats, shore crew, fund-raisers, all sorts of people.”
Volunteers come from all walks of life; there are farmers, marine engineers, electricians and others. Jen is a former barrister who, among other duties, operates the radio during shouts and exercises and looks after the welfare of the crew when they are out on the boat.
“The coxswain said to me that, at 2 o’clock in the morning, when they are out on the water and tired and scared they like to hear a friendly voice on the radio to get them home. It means a lot to them.”
The friendly voice they usually hear has a gentle Worcestershire accent; Jen grew up there, holidaying on the Norfolk Broads every year from six weeks old, before finally settling on the coast 14 years ago. “It was almost inevitable I’d end up here!”
Many of the call-outs at this time of year tend to be situations where people drift out to sea on inflatables, or are injured on the beach. The Sea Palling service is well-equipped and has vital gear aboard to help rescues, including a thermal imaging camera.
The dangers of the coast are well-documented – but visitors are still either ignorant or careless of the risks, climbing on the dangerous rocks or swimming into one of the potentially lethal rip tides which scour the coast. In 2016 four men were caught in a current and, despite heroic rescue attempts, one lost his life.
Jen’s message to the thousands of visitors who will pack Sea Palling’s beaches this summer is: “Take care. Follow the guidance on the beaches. Where there are RNLI lifeguards swim between the flags, don’t use inflatables – or if you do they must be on a rope tied to something. Anybody kayaking or paddle boarding – take a phone in a waterproof pocket and wear a lifejacket.
“We’re not the fun police but we don’t want to pull an unconscious person out of the water. We just want people to enjoy themselves”
RNLI Lifeboat stations in Norfolk
Established in 1804, Cromer Lifeboat Station has been awarded 56 medals for gallantry. Today it operates a Tamar and a D class lifeboat, and celebrates heroic coxswain Henry George Blogg. During his 53 years Cromer lifeboats saved 873 lives during 387 missions. cromerrnli.org.uk
Great Yarmouth and Gorleston
Celebrating nearly 200 years, Great Yarmouth and Gorleston has won 58 awards for outstanding rescues. The station has a Trent class lifeboat, capable of 25 knots with a range of 250 nautical miles.
Hunstanton Lifeboat Station operates an inshore B class Atlantic 85 and one of only four inshore rescue hovercraft in the country.
Established in 1866, Happisburgh Lifeboat Station has operated from Cart Gap since 2010. The B class inshore lifeboat is among the fastest in the RNLI fleet and the D class inshore lifeboat has been the workhorse of the RNLI for over 50 years. Highly manoeuvrable, it usually operates closer to shore than their all-weather lifeboats and comes into its own for searches and rescues in the surf, shallow water and confined locations.
Sheringham has celebrated nearly 170 years as a lifeboat station. It was the first station to receive a high-speed B class Atlantic 75 lifeboat.
Lifeboat crews at Wells have been saving lives at sea since 1830 but the first RNLI lifeboat station was built in 1869. The current boathouse is located on a sand and shingle spit just over a mile north of the town. It has a D class inshore lifeboat and a Mersey class all-weather lifeboat.
Norfolk’s independent lifeboats
There was a lifeboat in the village back in 1840; operating independently and later under the RNLI it saved almost 800 lives until it closed in 1930. It was reopened in 1972. The Sea Palling Lifeboat is a RIB named Lionheart, with a top speed of 40 knots. The ILB (inshore lifeboat) is an Arancia named Lion Ros Clipston, with a top speed of around 30 knots.
After a tragedy over 40 years ago the community banded together and in 1977 the Hemsby Inshore Rescue Service was incorporated as a charity, to save lives at sea and on the north Norfolk Broads. Despite lockdown, the service has managed to complete a new building and acquire a new boat launch vehicle.
As at Hemsby, a drowning tragedy in 1971 sparked a local drive to get a lifeboat forming Mundesley Volunteer Inshore Lifeboat Service. The station has an Arancia inshore lifeboat and a larger RIB. The station has helped over 100 people.
There has been a lifeboat at Caister since 1791 and their motto is ‘Caister men never turn back,’ a phrase used in 1901 after a disaster which saw nine of 12 crewmen drowned after setting out to sea on a wild November night. The RNLI closed the station in 1969 but locals immediately started an independent service and have been operating on this stretch of coast ever since and are now known as Caister Volunteer Lifeboat Service.