Meet the dy­namic team be­hind Oban’s lifeboat

The Oban Times - - News - MARTIN LAING mlaing@oban­

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.

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