Collection of lifeboat stories a stark reminder of valour shown by crews

Lifeboat Heroes by Edward Wake-Walker. Haynes Publish­ing, £19.99.

Most of us can only try to imagine it. But there are a number of people in Shetland who know only too well what it is like to be woken from a warm, comfy bed in the early hours of a wild winter’s day by the alarm on a lifeboat pager.

It means having to get dressed and out of the house as quick as possible and hurry down to the station. The first six to get there will grab their kit, run down the pier and get the lifeboat out into the teeth of the storm. They know somewhere out there in the dark a vessel and her crew are in a very real life or death situation. If they get there quick enough they could save them.

This new book by Edward Wake-Walker goes some way towards giving us a clearer insight into what happens when the maroons go off.

It is a collection of 16 remarkable lifeboat rescues from 1827 to 2008. All the rescues deservedly won medals from the RNLI although in some tragic cases the crew did not survive to collect them. Each chapter is short enough to be read before snuggling down into a warm, comfy bed.

The author worked for the RNLI for 28 years and is an adviser to the RNLI Heritage Trust. He has certainly researched each rescue thoroughly before putting finger to keyboard.

The early rescues were certainly in the “iron men and wooden boats” category. Oars and sails were the only means of propulsion, no proper wet weather gear, bulky cork life jackets and no shelter at all from the elements when they might be out all night with sea and spray lashing them. They had to be really tough to keep going.

I find it hard enough to row in a yoal for 10 minutes in a regatta on a summer’s day. These men had to row out from the beach into breaking seas knowing that if one of them missed his timing the boat could broach and be turned over in a moment.

The coxswains and crew recalled in each of the chapters are an RNLI Roll of Honour down through the years: Charles Fish at Ramsgate, Andrew Noble at Fraserburgh, Henry Blogg at Cromer, Robert Cross and Brian Bevan at Humber and, the most decorated coxswain of our time, Shetland’s own Hewitt Clark.

The author had plenty of outstanding rescues to choose from while Hewitt was at the Lerwick station but he focuses on the Green Lily incident in November 1997.

During a wild day of south-easterly Force 11 winds and 50ft seas the Lerwick lifeboat and other vessels including the Sullom Voe tug Tystie, under the command of Lowrie Johnson, and Norman Leask and his crew on Rescue Helicopter Oscar Charlie, went to the aid of the freezer ship Green Lily. Her engines had failed and she was drifting in towards Bressay. There was a lot of bravery that day but Hewitt’s cool head and expert handling in exacting conditions was paramount in rescuing a third of the crew.

This is a book you can dip in and out of, as each chapter is a story on its own. For anyone interested in the sea and ships it’s a good read and I certainly felt humbled by the exploits of the crews involved.

My only gripe is that at £19.99 it is a tad expensive for 224 pages, although one pound from each copy sold goes to the RNLI.

Andrew Halcrow


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