RNLI TOWER STATION: MEET THE VOLUNTEER CREW
Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames in the heart of London is the RNLI’s busiest station, and yet very few people in London are aware that it even exists. Tower RNLI is one of only a handful that is crewed 24 hours a day. This is because the Thames is an incredibly busy place, with increasing numbers of leisure and commercial boats on the river. It is also home to riverside pubs, sailing and rowing clubs, bridges, houses and businesses, so the work of the crew at Tower RNLI is vital to help keep those on and around the river safe.
There are over 60 crew at Tower lifeboat station, made up of 10 full-timers, and over 50 volunteers. These volunteers come from a range of backgrounds and professions, including small business owners, firefighters and bankers. The Thames has incredibly fast-turning tides, strong currents, and the year-round risk of cold-water shock which can cause hypothermia and drowning. The complexity of the river requires highly specialised and detailed knowledge.
There is no such thing as a typical shift at Tower RNLI. But once the alarm goes and the call comes in, the shout is on. The crew have 90 seconds to get into their full kit, onto the boat and head to the rescue.
Tower RNLI crew will answer the call for help from anybody that needs it and they are on service at the station 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. Who are these people who come to the rescue? What motivates the volunteers to give their time and efforts to help others?
MEET THE VOLUNTEERS
Luke Bishop: 5 years with the RNLI Tower Station
Winni Jarvis: 4 ½ years with the RNLI Tower Station
Al Kassim: 3 ½ years with the RNLI Tower Station
The first time you save a life is something that stays with you and confirms the importance of our service and the RNLI.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO VOLUNTEER FOR THE RNLI?
Al: I was rescued at sea 5 years ago whilst sailing off the coast of Chichester. That was the first time that I had ever heard of the RNLI, when being rescued. The RNLI was able to get to our call in under 8 minutes, which was the worst 8 minutes of my life. Since being rescued, I wanted to help the RNLI in any way I could. I didn’t realise initially that there was a station in London, but when I found out the station was across the road from my office I applied to volunteer for the Tower crew so that I could help others that find themselves in need.
Winni: I grew up on the south coast and was taught how to sail as a child. I always enjoyed being on the water and was always aware of water safety and the dangers of the sea. My Dad joined the Crew at Rye Harbour when I was about 15 and this meant I got to know the crew and more about what the RNLI was all about. My twin sister, Daisy, and I applied to become crew members at Rye Harbour when we were 17, and she now volunteers for the RNLI in St Ives and I’m at Tower.
Luke: I always wanted to be a member of the RNLI when I was young. I grew up in Padstow, when things go wrong at sea you hear about it in a small community like Padstow. The station used to use maroons to sound the alert that the crew were needed. They were really loud and you knew when you heard that sound that the crew would be heading out to help whoever was in trouble. I became a sailing instructor, and when you work on the water you build awareness of what the RNLI does and an affinity to them. A lot of my friends were volunteering for the RNLI too. After university I moved to London and decided that I wanted to get involved with the RNLI so signed up to volunteer here at Tower.
SHIFTS AT TOWER
Al: I currently volunteer for the RNLI at least once a week, but do it as much as the family allows. I volunteer with the RNLI alongside my full-time role in finance. I usually do a night shift. This means that I work a full day, leave the office at 6pm, come to Tower Lifeboat Station for 7pm, then do a 12 hour shift here. As a volunteer, the full time crew let us get our head down between call outs. In the morning, I will hit the gym and shower, then leave at 7am to carry on with my day job. It is a hard 36 hours when you do a night shift. You get used to not having much sleep – but I’ve got plenty of experience of losing sleep, as I have 2 children! I am very lucky that my family are so accepting of my volunteering role with the RNLI.
Luke: I run a restaurant group, so can be flexible with my work time. I usually volunteer nights, this means that I can still carry on working on my business during the day, then come to volunteer for the night shift at Tower. My wife and children are very supportive of what I do, which is great. I try and do as many shifts as I can.
You are responsible for what you do as an individual and also as a crew. All actions are important in life or death situations.
CHALLENGES OF BEING A TOWER CREW MEMBER
Winni: We have a great responsibility as RNLI volunteers. On a shift we work in teams of 4. You are responsible for what you do as an individual and also as a crew. All actions are important in life or death situations that we face. Through the progressive training that we receive, we have confidence that our actions and decisions will be the right ones and that we are as prepared as we can be. I am constantly learning from other crew members. We all have different skill sets, and we can all learn a great deal from each other.
Luke: Because the Thames has incredibly fast-turning tides and strong currents that are impossible to swim against, we need to be able to launch within 90 seconds to have the highest chance of saving a casualty. It can be very intense. We can launch that quickly because the team here at Tower Lifeboat Station are always ready for a shout. We have our kit on ready to go and the boat and the equipment is always kept ready to launch. On board we all have allocated roles. You have a high level of apprehension of getting to a serious casualty whilst on a shift at Tower. Because of the nature of the river, if somebody is in the water the chances of it being serious are very high.
TOWER CREW TRAINING
Al: We do a lot of training to make sure that we are ready for any scenario. We learn a range of things from casualty care, sea skills and even about specific laws on the Thames. Some days we could be called to people who are stuck in mud with rising waters, other days a medical illness, and even calls to people swimming. Not many people realise just how cold the Thames is, but cold-water shock is a big problem. People that enter the water unexpectedly tend to gasp for air which can fill their lungs with not very clean water which requires medical attention. It is important to know what to do to help in any kind of situation.
Winni: We get so many different shouts on the water, especially on the Thames, you have to be prepared for anything. One day you could be responding to a boat in difficulty and the next you could be carrying out lifesaving CPR. The Full-Time crew are great at setting up and facilitating training on shift depending on which volunteers are on duty, to suit specific training needs. This means everyone gets the most out of their time spent on station.
REWARDS OF VOLUNTEERING
Al: Your fellow crew are so important. You spend 12 hours with the team at Tower on a shift. You get to meet people from all backgrounds, people you wouldn’t normally meet, and you really get to know them. The lifeboats are great pieces of kit. The E class is the boat we have at Tower and it is the fastest in the RNLI fleet with a top speed of 40 knots.
Luke: Being a volunteer crew member can be really exciting and it is so different from my day job. There is a lot you can take from this role. Few people will ever experience the river in London the same way as us. You also get to work with great and interesting people from different backgrounds. There is a strong sense of comradery here in the team, which is really something special.
Winni: I love being part of the team, it is like a family here at Tower. I also like the emergency aspect to volunteering for the RNLI, and its unpredictability. It keeps you on your toes! My full-time job is a London Firefighter and the London Fire Brigade are very supportive of my RNLI role. There are many transferable skills that I learn from volunteering.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT BECOMING A VOLUNTEER
If you want to help fund the vital work of the RNLI and support the volunteers like Winni, Al and Luke please get involved. Learn more.
Royal National Lifeboat Institution, a charity registered in England and Wales (209603) and Scotland (SC037736). Registered charity number 20003326 in the Republic of Ireland