Meet the dynamic team behind Oban’s lifeboat
IT HAS been a busy start to the year for the crew and support staff at Oban lifeboat.
The RNLI station next to Railway Pier has been a hive of activity, with a far higher than usual number of call- outs for January. There were nine emergencies last month alone, compared with a single call- out in January last year and a total of 51 for the whole of 2015.
The past few months have also seen changes, with a new coxswain and mechanic for the lifeboat Mora Edith MacDonald.
The new coxswain, Richard Johnson, joined the station at the end of last year when he moved with his family to the West Highlands from Filey in North Yorkshire. Mechanic Tom Kennedy has notched up his first year having arrived in Oban last February from his native Troon, in Ayrshire.
Richard and Tom are the only full-time, paid employees of the RNLI in Oban. They are supported by a team of volunteers, headed by a kenspeckle stalwart of the charity, Billy Forteith, who is lifeboat operations manager. There are other support staff such as press officers, a medical adviser and an enthusiastic fundraising group.
Billy is certainly the best known member of the team, having been volunteering in various capacities for more than 40 years and having his long-standing dedication recognised with the award of the RNLI’s gold badge last year.
Of the nine call- outs in January, eight were for medical transfers to Oban from nearby islands and there has been some public criticism of that role for the lifeboat.
However, there is absolutely no doubt in Richard’s or Billy’s minds that it is necessary and a proper part of the RNLI’s remit.
Billy said: ‘It’s been a bit of an unusual start to the year but it’s down to circumstances, sometimes owing to the weather and visibility or the availability of the helicopter.’
Richard added: ‘It’s about prioritising. If, for example, we were on our way to Mull and a vessel shouted ‘mayday’, we would deviate to that. And there are other lifeboat stations - you’ve also got Islay and Tobermory.
‘ With a medical transfer, we are never really more than half an hour from our home port so we could get back out quite quickly.
‘Medical transfers fit right in with the RNLI’s vision of community lifesaving. If someone in the community is going to benefit from us transferring them from one of the islands, then we are duty-bound to do that. I certainly see it as part of our job.’
Billy who, as lifeboat manager, ultimately makes the call on whether to respond or not, concurrs. ‘ We are tasked to do a job and just get on with it,’ he said. ‘It’s down to me to decide on the launching of the boat and I will ask all the relevant questions. If I deem it is inappropriate, we won’t do it.’
Richard added: ‘ There will be a lot of considerations that will have been explored such as whether we can get an ambulance there and back by ferry or if we can get an air ambulance to do it before we launch.’
Billy is a former deputy coxswain but brought his days of going out on the boat to a close in 2006 as a result of health problems. ‘I had to retire because of a heart condition,’ he explained. ‘I started in 1972 so I’ve been through the whole spectrum and when I retired I became operations manager.’
Richard, who is married to Sara with whom he has toddler Sebastian, says he is loving his new role at Oban, though the commitment required would be daunting for most people. ‘Tom and I work a basic Monday to Friday, nine till five, with two weekends off a month but obviously we are on standby and a lot of the call- outs come at night. It’s just part of the job and we accept that. If I want to leave town, even for an hour, I’ve got to make sure one of my deputies can cover.’
Richard was enticed to Oban by a family connection and the prospect of taking over at a busy station.
‘I saw the job advertised up here and I fancied a change. I was looking for a different lifestyle and my brother is up here working for CalMac.
‘For me, it’s a new crew and a new challenge. It’s a very good crew and a busy station, which is always appealing. The regular call- outs are good for the crew rotation as it means everyone gets involved and can build their skills. It’s a station that allows crews to develop very quickly.’
For Tom, making the move north with wife Kirsty was an opportunity to change things for the better.
‘I was working on farms and was deputy mechanic on the Troon lifeboat,’ he said. ‘But I wasn’t particularly happy in my job so I decided to come up here and I’ve been really enjoying Oban.
‘Without the support of your family, you couldn’t do this job because it’s very tying.’
Tom Kennedy, Billy Forteith and Richard Johnson aboard the Mora Edith MacDonald.