Crew always on call to save lives from the grip of the Humber’s hidden perils

The Humber Rescue crew have been helping save lives for more than 25 years. Chris Bond paid them a visit on the eve of their 1,500th call out.

“the Humber is said to be one of the most dangerous rivers in the world and with currents anything up to seven knots and sandbanks that can change almost daily, it is no place for the unwary.”

This inscription is written on a board at the back of the Humber Rescue boathouse and looking out at the vast expanse of churning, muddy water with the wind howling down towards the estuary’s gaping mouth, such sentiments aren’t difficult to believe. “It’s the second most dangerous navigable estuary in the world after the Orinoco, in South America,” says Paul Berriff, founder of Humber Rescue and is now its director of operations.

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It is also one of the busiest in Britain with around 150 large ships using the estuary every day. Over the years Paul and the volunteer crew have seen just about everything. “It’s the most diverse lifeboat station in the UK, we deal with anything from oil tankers to pleasure boats. We’ve had plane crashes, hot air balloons, cars in the river and we once recovered £250,000 of drugs for West Yorkshire Police after it had been thrown in the river, so we have to be ready for anything,” he says.

The rescue organisation was formed in 1989 and it is almost 21 years to the day since the launch of its first proper lifeboat. Last month, the charity’s new £72,000 boat arrived and on Thursday the crew had its 1,500th callout, towing a family whose boat had suffered engine failure safely back to Goole marina.

The new boat is named the Hilary P Berriff, in honour of Paul’s wife, who has been involved with the organisation from the beginning, giving help and support to the service.

Humber Rescue is an independent organisation, separate from the RNLI, which it works closely with, and last year they were called out 120 times, making it one of the busiest inshore rescue boats in the country. “That might not sound like a lot but for a lifeboat it is. We’ve got the biggest patch in the UK, covering 500 square miles of water including the River Trent down as far as Gainsborough and right the way up to York, where we helped people during the floods.”

Paul first became involved in lifeboat rescues after becoming an auxiliary coastguard 35 years ago in Bridlington. After moving to Hull in the early 1980s and discovering there wasn’t a dedicated inshore search and rescue service for the Humber he and a small auxiliary group of volunteers decided to help. In the beginning, though, they didn’t even have a boat.

“When a call came in I would go out in my Land Rover with all the equipment, but we needed to be able to get out to people so I bought a small 12ft rubber dingy from brother-in-law and we used that initially to go out to distress calls,” he says.

“Before we had a boathouse we used to launch the boat from our garden and sometimes in the winter we’d have to dig it out of the snow in the middle of the night.”

Since these rudimentary beginnings, they have established themselves as an important life-saving service and are now an official 999 service which means they need a crew on 24-hour standby, seven days a week.

There are 16 members of the volunteer crew, each of whom has a pager so they can be notified by the emergency services. They now operate from a boathouse, opened in 1998 by round-the-world yachtsman Tony Bullimore, located below the Humber Bridge’s enormous northern tower, from where the boat can be launched in a matter of minutes.

Dave Roberts is the charity’s chairman and the rescue boat’s coxswain and has been involved for 20 years. He says anyone can volunteer to join the crew and over the years all kinds of people have. “We’ve had a TV producer, a pub landlord, mechanics, doctors, firemen and policemen, even a nappy maker.” Those who are invited to join will have their sea legs put to the test. “We go out whatever the weather, we were out in a force seven gale last week and we’ve been out in everything from flat, calm summer days to thick fog and a hurricane.”

Over the years crew members have risked life and limb to try and help others, although it can be harrowing work. Paul himself has helped recover 68 bodies from the river. “You can’t let that sort of thing get to you, so you do have to switch off,” he says. “There was one incident a few years ago where a pleasure boat radioed in to report a dinghy in difficulty. Four guys had set off from Hull Marina to go to the yacht club at Brough in conditions that even a big boat shouldn’t have been out in.

“They had gone out in this 15ft boat with no life jackets. The weather was so bad we couldn’t see over the waves and this boat had capsized near the Humber Bridge. We found two people clinging to the mast and managed to save them and get them on board.” But tragically, the other two men were swept away and were later found dead by a search and rescue team.

They also have to deal with suicide attempts. Around three people a month jump off the Humber Bridge and although most don’t survive, some do. “We’ve rescued a woman who jumped from the bridge with her baby, and Roger and I once swam out to rescue a girl in the middle of December,” says Paul.

One of the reasons they are so busy is the fact that a lot of people don’t realise how dangerous the Humber estuary can be. “If you’re driving along the motorway you might think it’s just a little river, but it isn’t a little river at all. On a day like today when you have a strong wind and the tide turns, you get what’s called wind against tide and it can become more dangerous out here than the North Sea. You’re better off in the sea because you know you have water beneath you, whereas in the estuary you can’t manoeuvre.”

Dave says in some places the channel is little wider than the boathouse, which means boats can easily run aground. “Quite often, people don’t have the right charts, or don’t realise how difficult it is to navigate in the narrow channels. We had an elderly couple who set off from York to go to Selby and they missed Selby and missed Goole. All they had was an AA road map and they didn’t know where they were and we found them drifting down the estuary.”

If people do end up in the water the crew’s expertise and knowledge of the estuary can make the difference between life and death.

“If someone goes in the water by the bridge, in five or 10 minutes they can be a mile away. So you have to look at the tidal conditions and calculate where to search, there’s no point looking where they went in because they won’t be there.”

At night time trying to find someone can be like looking for a needle in a haystack and even during the day it can tricky. “We did an exercise one Saturday with an RAF helicopter and we put a big orange buoy in the river to practice with and neither us or the helicopter ever found it – and this was a bright sunny afternoon. So imagine trying to spot a head and shoulders, especially in the dark.”

The crew have made some unusual and dramatic rescues over the years. “We’ve had a jet fighter in the river when a Tornado crashed and we rescued the pilots, and we’ve helped the fire brigade get horses out of the river near Beverley and we recovered six cows from an island near Market Weighton, so you never what’s coming next which makes it very exciting.” However, it costs around £45,000 a year to run Humber Rescue, all of which has to be raised themselves. “About 10 per cent of the work we do is going out in the lifeboat, the rest is raising money and keeping the boathouse, the boat and all the equipment maintained 24 hours a day.

“Each time we launch the boat it costs about £70 for fuel alone and each crew member has around £1,400 worth of equipment on them when they go out,” says Paul. “We’re not part of a big organisation, like the RNLI, and we still rely on local organisations and the man in the street.”

But despite the hardships of keeping one of Britain’s busiest inshore rescue boats going, he is proud of what they’ve achieved.

“When we first launched all we had was a compass and a pole and now we have state-of-the art satellite equipment and the coastguard can track us.

“We started from nothing and we’re now a well-established life boat, probably the third-busiest in the UK, and not only are we rescuing people but we’re teaching rescuers from other emergency services. But at the end of the day I’m just glad we’ve been able to help.”

* For more information visit www.humber-rescue.org.uk

HOW HILARY MADE A NAME

Hilary Berriff’s patience during the early years of Humber Rescue was rewarded when its new £72,000 boat was named in her honour.

Mrs Berriff said: “To say I am shocked is an understatement. I couldn’t understand why so many close relatives and friends turned up. I honestly don’t deserve it.” But coxswain Dave Roberts said: “For five years, the boat was in her garden, until we got the boathouse in 1995. I even once had to launch the boat with her car and she said: ’Don’t get it wet inside’, but unfortunately I did. She always put up with us and she put up with an awful lot.”

The new boat was blessed by one of the original crew, Philip Rodmell, a reader at All Saints Church, Hessle.