22nd November 2017

WATCH: Hylton makes retirement plan after decades as Aith lifeboat man

He has been associated with the Aith lifeboat for decades, but Hylton Henry will finally seek a safe haven when he moors up for the last time next year.
The 54-year-old is retiring after 27 years as coxswain.

Mr Henry says his life at sea has been more than just a job. He said his career on the lifeboat, which spans back almost 40 years, has been far, far more than he could ever have hoped.

“It’s just been my life. It’s not been a job, it’s been my life – and it’s been fantastic.”

Mr Henry said a lot of satisfaction came from living in the Aith community – something which has given him a lot of reassurance when the shouts have been coming in.

“For me, personally, to bring up three lasses and still do this job with the help of the community has been great. The family live in the village as well so if the pager went off, you always knew someone was going to take care of them.

“But actually, the job satisfaction, when you get to do a job to help somebody and see their appreciation – that to me has been the biggest thing.”

Mr Henry said he had spent a lifetime working with boats. His early years were spent going on fishing trips with his father, Kenny Henry, who was himself the Aith Coxswain for 19 years.

Indeed, it was one of Mr Henry senior’s fishing trips that gave the young Hylton his first experience with the lifeboat.

“The old man had his own wee fishing boat. There was a rowing punt, so from a very young age we were playing in the skiff. Then we used to go fishing with the old man.

“He was off fishing when they [the lifeboat] got a call. So they took me – I would have been 14 or 15 – out into the bay where the old man was, swapped me for him in his boat. I took his boat back and he carried on doing the job.”

Over the years, Mr Henry has answered the call to attend a great number of incidents.

He said there were “a lot of fond memories” – adding even the boring jobs had their own challenges.

Mr Henry added the tragic helicopter crash off Sumburgh, which claimed the lives of four people in August 2013, was one of the more “complex” jobs the lifeboat was asked to attend.

The coxswain said he had been very much tied to the area, as his responsibilities meant getting away anywhere was often difficult.

“One of the hardest things about the boat was that you’re tied very close to the boat the whole time. If you wanted to leave or go away from the boat you had to have a volunteer that was willing to stand in for you. If there were none available you just had to accept that.”

One incident when Mr Henry was able to leave the lifeboat behind was in 1999, when he attended a special event laid on for emergency service representatives at Buckingham Palace, where they were met by the Queen.

“They were there from fire brigade, ambulance and a few of us from the lifeboats.

“She [Queen Elizabeth] was a very pleasant lady to speak to. It was at a time when there had been a big accident in the English Channel, and she was asking the Dover coxswain about it,” he said.

“She looked at me and said ‘that wouldn’t happen up where you come from’.”

The RNLI have clearly taken Mr Henry’s planned departure very seriously, advertising the position in plenty time ahead of his retirement.

Mr Henry said he would be on hand to show his successor the ropes.

He was in no doubt over the qualities necessary for the job.

“They are looking for leadership, somebody to be in charge. Although you are part of a team, you need one person to make the final decisions.

“They’ll need to be able to do that. It’s a unique job in that if you fall out with your crew and they won’t go to sea with you, that’s the end of your career in the lifeboat. So you need to have good communication skills with them. You need good handling skills as well.”

Mr Henry said he would be looking forward to “doing a bit of fishing” in his retirement. But one thing he will enjoy more than most – the freedom to do as he pleases.

“Having the freedom will be a big release,” he said. I have 10 grandchildren, and they all live in the village here.

“It’s a challenging position to fill, because if you’re on duty it’s 24-7, and you can’t leave the village to go and do anything. Plus, there is also the demands of the job. You have to take it very responsibly because people’s lives depend on your actions.

“We always put the person in trouble before anything else.”

About Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor has worked as a reporter since 1995, and has been at The Shetland Times since 2007, covering a wide variety of news topics. Before then he reported for other newspapers in the Highlands, where he was raised, and in Fife, where he began his career with DC Thomson. He also has experience in broadcast journalism with Grampian Television. He has lived in Shetland since 2002, where he harbours an unhealthy interest in old cars and motorbikes.

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