This year is the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Lerwick Lifeboat Station.
During the eight decades of its existence, the lifeboats and crews based there have saved nearly 1,000 lives.
The lifeboat station was formed after two maritime disasters in the spring of 1930 – the tragic loss of all the crew of the trawler Ben Doran in March, followed by the loss of the St Sunniva on Mousa the following month. Although all 40 passengers and crew of the St Sunniva were saved, this galvanised the RNLI into action and by July 1930 the first Lerwick lifeboat, the Lady Jane and Martha Ryland, was on station. She was a 52ft Barnett class lifeboat, with twin petrol engines, and served the station for 28 years, launching 79 times and saving 80 lives.
Since then there have only been three other lifeboats permanently stationed in Lerwick. In 1958 another 52ft Barnett class lifeboat, the Claude Cecil Staniforth, equipped with twin diesel engines, replaced the original lifeboat.
Though the hull shape was the same, this was a more advanced craft having two-way radio, DF and echo-sounder fitted. Later in the early 1970s a inflatable bag self-righting system was introduced, fitted at the stern to be deployed in the event of a capsize. She too served the station well, being launched on 95 occasions and saving 32 lives between 1958 and 1978.
The first Lerwick Lifeboat Appeal was launched 33 years ago to raise funds for a new replacement and in the summer of 1978 the Arun class Soldian arrived. Radically different to the older boats, she was made of fibreglass with an aluminium superstructure, and a hull designed to have a maximum speed of 18 knots, twice the speed of the old boats. In the event of a capsize she also had an inbuilt automatic self-righting system, the first Lerwick lifeboat to have this installed from new. This innovative design proved to be a remarkable sea boat, and during her 19 years of service she launched over 200 times and was credited with saving 365 lives.
The current lifeboat, the Severn class Michael and Jane Vernon arrived at Lerwick in May 1997. She is said to be “faster, safer and better in every way”.
The vessel was provided from the bequests of Miss Eleanor Rennie, Ronald Fee, a gift from Mr J. Young and the second Lerwick Lifeboat Appeal. She was a further advance on the fast-response style of lifeboat, being built from fibre reinforced composite, fitted with twin diesel engines and capable of a maximum speed of 25 knots, and a range of 250 miles.
Electronically she has the latest equipment, being installed with MF and VHF radios with DF, electronic chart plotters, GPS and radars, and carrying a small powered rubber inflatable boat which can be launched directly from the main lifeboat.
Although the six men who go out in the lifeboat have confidence in the vessel there is still an element of fear when responding to a call. And that call, which comes to coxswain Bruce Leask from the coastguard and is then relayed to the crew, could be anything from a person falling into the harbour or a 26-hour marathon, as happened when a boat ran aground in Skerries.
Since 1930 the Lerwick lifeboats and their relief boats have launched over 700 times and to date 863 people owe their lives to the bravery, expertise and dedication of the Lerwick lifeboat coxswains and crews. This year the lifeboat has launched 25 times between January and October – and this compares with a total of 15 launches in 2009, and 18 in 2008.
In September she had two “shouts” in two days, going to fishing boats with engine room fires.
The first was from the Norwegian fishing vessel Keltic, which reported the fire just before 10am.
The boat, with a crew of 13 on board, had no power and was drifting in heavy seas. The automatic fire extinguishing system had activated, but as the engine room was sealed off the crew had no way of knowing whether the fire had been put out.
While visibility was good, the sea state was very rough as the coastguard rescue helicopter and the lifeboat departed from Sumburgh and Lerwick respectively to assist the fishing boat, 30 miles due east of Lerwick, in severe gale force nine winds.
The Scottish fishery patrol vessel Hirta also made its way to the scene and stood by.
The fire was brought under control and the lifeboat towed the vessel back to Lerwick, where she arrived by 8.40pm.
The coastguard was again alerted the next evening, when a mayday broadcast from the steel-hulled Skerries fishing vessel Fairway II reported a fire in the engine room.
While the three-man crew tackled the blaze, the coastguard rescue helicopter and the lifeboat again made their way out to the vessel, 40 miles east-north-east of Lerwick.
The nearby Danish fishing vessel Staaloey arrived on the scene to assist, accompanied by the Scottish fisheries protection vessel Jura.
The crew managed to extinguish the blaze but were left with no power and their fishing gear still down. At around 10.30pm the vessel lost all power and communication for 15 minutes. However, they were soon able to get the generator working again.
The Fairway II managed to restart her main engine by 1am and made her way back to Lerwick, escorted by the lifeboat, and arrived at 6.30am, returning to the fishing the next day.
Meanwhile the fund-raising for the lifeboat goes on. Lerwick Ladies Lifeboat Guild president Linda Simpson said that unlike the other emergency services, lifeboats up and down the country are purely funded by charitable donations.
“We have to keep it going, especially where we live,” she said. “Nearly everybody knows someone who goes to sea.”
This year the guild has raised around £30,000 from its activities, which include the spring coffee morning and popular summer open day trip round Bressay provided by NorthLink (which donate the use of its ferry). In addition money comes in from the lifeboat shop and charity boxes.
More is raised by the men’s committee (Lerwick branch) which is gifted money through donations and legacies, making a grand total of around £50,000 per year.