Tuesday 4 March isn't just about pancakes.
It's also the 190th birthday of the RNLI, the lifeboat charity whose volunteers have saved countless lives at sea.
Founded on 4 March 1824, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute saves an average of 22 lives per day, totalling almost 1.5 million since records began.
Battling through wind, rain and stormy waters is all in a day’s work for the crews of the RNLI. So who better to model the finest waterproof jackets on the market than three of the lifeboat charity’s 4,600 heroes – interviewed and photographed waterside on the treacherous Thames?
“One time, our board in the station said ‘21 lives + one dog’. And there have been occasions where we’ve saved a couple of ducks”
Name: Richard Abbot | Age: 34 | From: Southend-on-Sea | Years with the RNLI: 5 | Wears: Jacket, £110, Penfield
I work for the London fire brigade, as a watch manager at Plaistow fire station in East London. I used to be in the Royal Navy and I’ve always been associated with boats. I spent two-and-a-half years on HMS Endurance, the Antarctic patrol ship.
The river Thames is very unique, very dangerous. It may look quite idyllic, especially on a summer’s day, but it’s full of dangers. It’s like a motorway of shipping, and there are just so many unseen dangers.
I’m on the flood rescue team. Last summer we were involved in the floods in the South-West and the Midlands. The RNLI brings a lot of experience saving lives at sea to different situations.
One rescue sticks in my mind. It was February, a really cold day. I remember turning up and the lady was going under. The last grab of her hand was the thing that saved her. She came out, unconscious, not breathing; we carried out CPR and got her back to the lifeboat pier, where the ambulance crews took over. That was the first life I’d saved in the lifeboats. There’s plenty of crew here who would tell the same story of that last reach to grab someone.
Any life is a life worth saving. One time, on our board in the station, it said “21 lives + one dog”. And there’s been occasions where we’ve saved a couple of ducks.
When the bell rings, it’s definitely an adrenaline rush. The feeling is: right, I need to get on the boat as quickly as possible and find out what we’ve got to do and where. On the way you’re preparing in your mind, going through different scenarios of what you might come up against.
When you’re working on the coast, you know that if there’s a big storm coming then you’re likely to be busier. In London it’s probably more likely if it’s a Friday or Saturday night, because there are more people about. More people tend to throw themselves off bridges on those nights.
It really brings into perspective how important life is and how small we are in the world around us. You see all different sorts of people, different ways of living.
My speciality is probably a cooked breakfast, a big fry-up. The day before a shift we might give someone a call and say, “Who’s cooking? Shall I bring some stuff in?” That’s a whole part of the camaraderie of it – everyone’s got their own stories.
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Some people come to the station or send you a card, just to show their appreciation. That’s one of the best feelings about the job. It’s not why any of us does it, but it’s nice to know that you’re appreciated.
About the label
Founded in 1975, Massachusetts brand Penfield started out making hardy, high-quality outerwear. Combining these values with a fashion aesthetic, this season’s collection is filled with coast-inspired pieces, from this weatherproof nautical jacket to vintage-feel printed tees.
“When it’s sunny, a lot of people think, ‘Oh, it’s great, let’s jump in,’ and go for a swim. You want to shake them and say, ‘That’s really not a good idea’”
Name: Tom Cousins | Age: 39 | From: Hertfordshire | Years with the RNLI: 10 | Wears: Jacket, £264, Napapijri
I’m a fisheries officer with the Environment Agency, working on the Thames and the rivers around London. I was a keen fisherman for years, and then via work got into operating small boats and working on the water.
There’s a minimum of two shifts a month, and that can be days or nights, but it’s a 12-hour shift, seven till seven. There’s no predictability to it. At any point during a shift the bell can go and you’ve got 90 seconds to get going.
The boats are big boys’ toys. They’ve got the thick end of 1,000 horsepower and they do in excess of 40 knots, so they are fun to drive. Driving them flat out, you’re looking two or three bridges ahead of where the boat actually is – it’s a very busy commercial waterway, and you’ve got to pick your way through that at speed.
It is brilliant when you get someone out. There are times you’ve got to someone in time, and if the boat hadn’t launched, they wouldn’t be there. That’s quite an amazing feeling.
There was a rescue a couple of months back: the bell went and we launched. Someone was reported in the water, but it was so cold that you couldn’t see the guy, you could just see the steam from his breath. That was the only reason we got hold of him. I don’t think I could drink enough vodka to make going for a swim in February look attractive, but this guy had had a few.
Some of the individuals you pull out can be quite aggressive. A lot of what we get is people jumping off bridges, attempted suicides, and they can be full of booze or drugs. But nine times out of 10 the fight’s gone out of them by the time you get there.
People who have been in the water will usually be hypothermic. They need to go to hospital. There’s also things like secondary drowning, where people can react to the river water and their lungs fill up later on.
When it’s sunny, a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s great, let’s jump in.” You want to shake them and say, “That’s really not a good idea, because you might not come back out.” I’m more conscious now how few people appreciate that risk.
I’m constantly amazed by what some people think is a seaworthy boat. If someone goes afloat and makes some cock-ups, we’d much rather they gave us a ring. We’re not going to tell you off. If you think you need us, you probably do, so get on the phone.
About the label
Italian-owned, Finnish-named Napapijri is one of the globe’s finest functional labels, set up with the aim of creating technical products for the more demanding traveller.
“You get kayakers who are out there at 11 o’clock at night, not lit up, and there’s passenger boats zipping up and down”
Name: Mark Novelle | Age: 27 | From: Bournemouth | Years with the RNLI: 1 | Wears: Jacket, £180, Paul Smith
I’m a town planner – this is where I get my excitement. It feels good when you’re doing 50 miles an hour down the Thames. The three new Mk1 E class boats are the fastest in the fleet.
I used to be in the navy reserves. I loved it. I learnt boat handling and had the general idea of seamanship, but these are very different types of boats. It’s like going from a Skoda to a Mercedes.
I’ve done between 40 and 50 shifts since I started. You get two or three calls on one shift, and none on others. Spread out across the whole of the past year, I’ve probably had about 30 or 40 shouts.
The majority of call-outs are people who deliberately put themselves in harm’s way. Friday and Saturday night are quite busy; you get the party boats out, people taking different substances, and not in moderation. And obviously in the summer all the tourists are out, the tour boats are packed, so something can easily happen.
There was a tour boat that had got into trouble at Westminster Bridge and was stuck. It had in excess of 200 people onboard. All the bottles on the bar had come off and smashed, and people were running down from the top deck because the bridge was encroaching on it. It was just sheer panic. There were only three of us, and one had to stay with the boat. Eventually we towed the vessel away and got everyone off.
It’s not like I do this to get an adrenaline rush, but when the bell goes, adrenaline does start flowing. You might only get a location down the phone – they’ll tell you if someone’s in the water, but you’ve got to be prepared for anything.
People think they might be able to swim across. But you get quite strong currents here, three or four knots under the bridges, and you can’t swim against that, so people find themselves in difficulty quite quickly.
You get kayakers who are out there at 11 o’clock at night, not lit up, and there are passenger boats zipping up and down that wouldn’t see them. It’s people not being aware of the situation they’re in that’s dangerous.
People don’t look real once they’re deceased. When you get to them and they’re already dead – I’ve had a few of those – it’s not the nicest of jobs, but you remain detached from it, I guess. It’s too late to do anything, so you just take the most dignified course of action from there on.
Everyone loves to talk about stuff they’ve done, experiences they’ve had – there’s a lot of that. As soon as you walk in the station here you say, “Quiet night? Busy night? Been out on any shouts?”
The guys on the coast are heroes in their own right, but I wouldn’t have thought any of them would think of themselves in that way. People do it as a selfless act and love what they do, so no one really views themselves like that.
People have witnessed something and then walked down to the station and given a donation. A lot of people don’t know we’re here, but I think the people who do see us have a lot of respect for the RNLI.
About the label
Where designer labels often create unwearable, expensive garments, Paul Smith does just the opposite, consistently putting out masculine, desirable threads that deliver. This showerproof jacket from the Jeans range is no exception.
Words: Dan Masoliver
Photography: Michael Thomas Jones
Styling: Will Barnes