Crewing the lifeboats of the east coast is often a family business. In the final part of our series, Andrew Vine reports.
IT can be a tricky business manoeuvring Marine Engineer out of Bridlington Lifeboat Station, and as usual, the curious come out of The Spa just over the road and the nearby hotels to watch it happening.
As the tractor hauls the lifeboat out, ready to put to sea for a training exercise, there is only a foot or two clearance either side, and how tight it is has been the subject of an animated discussion at the crew meeting before the men don their all-weather gear and set out for a couple of hours, during which they will be drilled in navigation, anchoring, and perhaps some rope work as well.
Crews have been manoeuvring out of this lifeboat house since 1903, when teams of horses hauled the boat along South Marine Drive to the slipway, and down to the beach.
The Bridlington lifeboat is long overdue a new home, and it’s going to get one over the next year or two, right on the foreshore, bigger and able to accommodate a new, faster all-weather boat to replace Marine Engineer, which by then will have clocked up 20 years of distinguished service to Bridlington that have seen her save scores of lives.
Watching her being brought out once again is Andy Brompton, 65, whose connection to the RNLI in Bridlington goes back well over 30 years. He’s the deputy launching authority these days, but for 25 years he was a member of the crew, ending up as second coxswain.
Also involved in the launch is his son, Christopher, 39, the full-time station mechanic, with 22 years’ service already under his belt. As a boy, he would wait in his father’s car for him to return from an emergency call or an exercise. His own two young sons now love coming down to the lifeboat house.
Andy and Christopher stand in a long tradition of families from Bridlington crewing the lifeboat. At one time, five fathers and their sons were among the crew, and today there are other family connections on board.
The coxswain, Stuart Tibbett, and his brother Simon are both here, following in the footsteps of their uncle, Bernard Warcup, who was a crew member in the 1970s and 80s.
The generations share the same loyalty to the lifeboat – and the same hazards. In a single week, Andy injured two ribs aboard and Christopher dislocated his hip.
“Christopher started coming down with me when he was five years old, and he would wait in the car until I would come back,” says Andy. “My wife worries more about Christopher than she did about me, but he’s out there in a good boat with a good crew.”
“The older I got, the more involved I got,” adds Christopher. “We all do get on, and it all just seemed to fall into place and works really well out there. You do have a turn-round period, between one and five years, and once you have got to that five-year landmark, it’s always there.”
“It is one of those things that gets into your blood,” says Andy. “You get lads who don’t want to leave because it really gets to them.”
There was a time when the Bridlington fishing fleet provided most of the crew. Not any more. Now it includes a lot of tradesmen – a plumber, electrician, plasterer, a painter and decorator. “We only need a carpet fitter and we’ve got the lot,” somebody quips.
Nevertheless, the connection to fishing is never far away. The youngest crew member is Ashley Traves, 22, who though from a fishing family, is an electrician. He’d always wanted to go to sea, but his family discouraged the idea because of the economic difficulties faced by the fishing industry. They were, though, delighted when he joined the lifeboat. “My dad and granddad are fishermen, and I wanted to be there if anything did go wrong. I wanted to join a couple of years ago, but I didn’t think I was at the right level of maturity, but I’m more settled now.”
The fishing connection is there too with Stuart Tibbett, 42, who had his own boat as a young man. He’s been part of the crew for 23 years, recently becoming coxswain after 10 years as second cox.
He’s a joiner, and when the emergency pager he carries at all times goes off, whatever he’s working on just has to wait. If somebody’s front door is off and he’s in the middle of a job, that’s just hard luck. The call to sea takes priority over everything. His wife and two sons, aged three and five, have to drop everything as well.
“It affects your family more than you,” said Stuart. “You can’t say ‘Right, let’s go shopping to York.’ Their lives revolve around the lifeboat as well. They know that if Dad’s pager goes, they have to get their shoes on pretty quick and go, and you have to get to the babysitter, so you’re thinking about it all the time.”
Having children of his own makes certain call-outs stick in Stuart’s mind. One involves a five-year-old boy being swept out by the tide; as luck would have it, the lifeboat was already at sea and the crew got to him in time to save his life. “There were a lot of ‘what ifs’. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If they had had to page us, the outcome would have been very different. Mentally, that was difficult and it was one of those where you had to talk to someone afterwards.”
It is, though, never easy. Launching the lifeboat from the beach means the crew are soaked from the moment they set out.
“When it’s bad weather, you’re wet within the first five minutes when the first wave comes over and gets you,” said Stuart. “Everything is a challenge, from the weather to what you’re going out to, and it can sometimes be a challenge just getting the boat to the water because of the tourists. The wind and the tide are never the same and you learn something every time you go out there.”
In an average year in Bridlington, they go out there about 35 times, between the all-weather boat and the inshore boat, Windsor Spirit, named after the local pub that raised so much money towards buying it.
But then the town holds its lifeboats dear. The fundraising is as consistent as the urge to serve aboard.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” said Andy. “People are always interested, and they’ll come and knock on the door.”
They’ll find there’s much to do. It will take three days after this exercise to get the lifeboat back into peak condition, and the work is never-ending. Every three months, full maintenance of all the lifejackets aboard will take Christopher an entire day.
Manoeuvring Marine Engineer back into the lifeboat house is even trickier than getting her out, and once again people come out to watch. It’s a calm night, and it’s been a quiet sea. But the next time the pagers go off and Stuart and the rest drop everything and race down to the lifeboat, they know it might be very different.
Like all the other volunteer crews on the Yorkshire coast, they put their own lives at risk out of a passion to help those in danger.