COM­MU­NITY FIGHTS FOR LIFEBOAT

10,000 peo­ple have signed a pe­ti­tion to stop the RNLI re­mov­ing the all-weather lifeboat in New Quay, Ceredi­gion, af­ter 153 years and re­plac­ing it with a smaller, far cheaper in­shore boat. Robert Har­ries re­ports on a grow­ing storm...

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JOSH BALLA had only gone for a swim. He was on hol­i­day on the south Ceredi­gion coast and made his way down to the sea with some friends on a sum­mer’s day.

Just 15 min­utes later, the then 21-year-old was in se­ri­ous dan­ger.

The weather had turned, the strength of the cur­rent had picked up and ef­forts to swim back to the shore had proved un­suc­cess­ful.

Josh had ceded con­trol to the el­e­ments – he was at the mercy of the waves.

“I didn’t feel afraid straight away,” he said, “but then when I tried to swim against the tide, I re­alised that I couldn’t.”

Thank­fully, on that Au­gust day in 2012 mem­bers of the RNLI were able to ar­rive on the scene quickly in their all-weather lifeboat, sta­tioned a few miles north in New Quay.

Within min­utes he was on board, shel­tered and warm.

“I dread to think how the sit­u­a­tion would have un­folded if the crew had to come from fur­ther away. Hav­ing that boat there made a big dif­fer­ence,” he said.

That boat is the Mersey-class Frank and Lena Clif­ford of Stour­bridge, which has been sta­tioned at New Quay since 1992 but is com­ing to­wards the end of its op­er­a­tional life.

Ev­ery­one in New Quay took it as a given that the all-weather boat would be re­placed by a new one.

Af­ter all, there has been an all­weather lifeboat in New Quay for 153 years. It is the only one in the en­tire county. Many, many lives have been saved thanks to it.

But in June it was an­nounced that New Quay would, in fu­ture, no longer house a boat with the same ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

From 2020 this stretch of the west coast will in­stead be ser­viced by a much smaller, in­shore lifeboat.

“You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out, I could not be­lieve it,” said Steve Hart­ley, an RNLI crew mem­ber for the past 35 years and for­mer emer­gency me­chanic.

In short, New Quay will soon be with­out an all-weather lifeboat for the first time since the 19th cen­tury.

The RNLI sta­tion in Bar­mouth, to the north, and in Fish­guard, to the south, will have cov­er­age from a larger boat.

The char­ity states that these ves­sels will cover New Quay and the sur­round­ing ar­eas in the event of an emer­gency.

The cost of the new all-weather lifeboat – the Shan­non class – runs into the mil­lions, while the smaller boat costs just over £200,000.

The RNLI ad­mits cost is a fac­tor in its de­ci­sion, but crew mem­bers, while ap­pre­ci­at­ing that tough de­ci­sions have to be made, think in this in­stance the char­ity has made a cat­a­strophic one.

Leav­ing a 70-mile gap of coast­line with­out an all-weather boat has been de­scribed as “crazy”.

Crew mem­bers say that, in se­vere seas, the lifeboats at Bar­mouth or Fish­guard would take more than an hour and a half to re­spond to an emer­gency in New Quay, or neigh­bour­ing Aber­aeron.

“They knew there would be a re­ac­tion like this,” said Mr Hart­ley.

“They even had a con­tin­gency plan in place af­ter the an­nounce­ment, in case we all threw our toys out of the pram and walked out.

“That never crossed our minds. We were back in train­ing the day af­ter the de­ci­sion was an­nounced.”

That ded­i­ca­tion to the role stands these vol­un­teers apart. They don’t want to fall out with the RNLI. It is, af­ter all, a char­ity that saves lives.

It re­ceives no gov­ern­ment fund­ing at all and is com­pletely reliant on do­na­tions. In 2016, it cost £485,000 a day to run the char­ity.

As crew mem­ber Huw Wil­liams makes clear: “We’re not anti-RNLI in any way. They’re still train­ing, they’re still fundrais­ing, and we’re not knock­ing them at all.

“But, in this in­stance, they’ve made a bad de­ci­sion.”

The pres­ence of the lifeboat sta­tion and its crew within the com­mu­nity is clearly felt and ap­pre­ci­ated.

The town is de­pen­dant on its ca­pac­ity to at­tract vis­i­tors. The sea and a count­less col­lec­tion of fish­ing boats dom­i­nate the view as you look out onto Cardi­gan Bay.

Peo­ple en­ter the sea here every day, by boat or oth­er­wise, many of them are tourists un­fa­mil­iar with the dan­gers of fast-mov­ing tides and cur­rents.

The lifeboat crew pro­vide a cloak of re­as­sur­ance.

Cam­ou­flaged by their nine-to-five jobs, fam­ily lives and reg­u­lar day-to­day rou­tines, they don’t seek recog­ni­tion and most of the time they don’t re­ceive it.

They just get on with the job: putting their lives at risk to save the lives of oth­ers, for free.

“I worry about the crew some­times, I re­ally do,” said Mr Hart­ley.

“Pic­ture the scene, af­ter 2020, we get a call at half past two in the morn­ing, in the mid­dle of Fe­bru­ary, and it’s freez­ing.

“Some­one’s in dan­ger, and we’ve

got to pop out in a small in­flat­able lifeboat – three of us on that thing. Can you imag­ine? I wouldn’t want to be on that boat.”

The view is echoed by Nick Sawyer.

“I’m very shocked and dis­ap­pointed by the RNLI’s at­ti­tude,” he said.

“This de­ci­sion puts crews at risk. What­ever hap­pens be­tween Bar­mouth and Fish­guard – in con­di­tions above Force 7, or Force 6 at night?

“Emer­gen­cies will present peo­ple with an eth­i­cal dilemma, sat on the shore, not be­ing able to go out and carry out a res­cue due to not hav­ing an all-weather boat. In these cir­cum­stances, the fear is that crews will be tempted to go out any­way.”

This is the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion faced by these peo­ple – vol­un­teer­ing in grave dan­ger. In­stinct will kick in. Lo­cal shop owner Ka­rina Ed­wards’ 18-year-old son Oliver has re­cently joined the crew at New Quay.

She says the de­ci­sion is a “dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen”.

“Our son has rel­ished the prospect of join­ing the RNLI,” she said. “We have sup­ported him as we feel that liv­ing in a small com­mu­nity it is im­por­tant to work to­gether and give some­thing back.

“I am now se­ri­ously wor­ried about the prospect of Oliver and the rest of the crew be­ing on a boat which I do not think is fit for the call-outs he is asked to do.

“Firstly, the sea con­di­tions can change dra­mat­i­cally in a short space of time.

“There is no guar­an­tee that the boat which can be launched in weather con­di­tions deemed safe could then find it­self out at sea in de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions.

“If that is the case it could take an hour and a half for the near­est all­weather lifeboat to get to them.

“This would not only put the crew at risk, but also any­body else on board who they’ve had to res­cue.

“Se­condly, imag­ine be­ing in an open boat in high winds and rain for sev­eral hours in Novem­ber or De­cem­ber. There is no shel­ter, no place to get warm or out of the driv­ing wind and rain.

“On one oc­ca­sion last win­ter Oliver trav­elled to Aberys­t­wyth to aid in the search for a stu­dent be­lieved to be in the sea. The wind was howl­ing and our garden fur­ni­ture was blown around. I was con­cerned but knew he was safe and pro­tected in the all­weather boat.

“How dif­fer­ent that sce­nario would be with­out shel­ter for the crew; it is al­most like the days when they were row­ing in open boats.

“We have moved for­ward since then and have the abil­ity to keep the men safe.

“A fire­fighter would not be asked to at­tend an in­ci­dent in a hatch­back with a fire ex­tin­guisher and no breathing ap­pa­ra­tus.

“Our sons, hus­bands and fa­thers vol­un­teer to save lives at sea. They give a valu­able ser­vice and put their lives at risk for no fi­nan­cial re­ward.

“They are on call 24 hours a day and for that all we ask is that they can do this as safely as pos­si­ble.

“This is a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen and I would like to know who will be cul­pa­ble when it does.”

The fight to change the minds of those be­hind this de­ci­sion has reached Par­lia­ment, with Ceredi­gion MP Ben Lake de­scrib­ing the sit­u­a­tion as “not sat­is­fac­tory”.

“The RNLI Lifeboat Sta­tion at New Quay has de­liv­ered an ex­cel­lent ser­vice for the past 153 years, and its crew needs to be given the cor­rect equip­ment to con­tinue their life­sav­ing work,” said Mr Lake.

“This de­ci­sion will not only af­fect New Quay, but the whole of Cardi­gan Bay. I will be do­ing all that I can to get this de­ci­sion re­con­sid­ered.”

The RNLI’s de­ci­sion is based on data col­lated from the past five years. How­ever the fig­ures are sliced up, the salient fact is that, from 2020, New Quay will be fur­thest away from any all-weather lifeboat in the whole of Wales.

“It’s crazy to make a de­ci­sion that could af­fect the next 50 years based on five years of data,” says Huw Wil­liams, who says his eight-year-old son al­ready has ambitions to work on the lifeboats when he turns 17.

Jonathan Evans, a for­mer lifeboat vol­un­teer who now skip­pers a pas­sen­ger boat out of New Quay, draws a pow­er­ful anal­ogy to demon­strate the point.

“If your house doesn’t burn down af­ter five years, do you can­cel your home in­surance?

“It’s shock­ing that they’re mak­ing such a de­ci­sion on only five years of data. There’s never been a fa­tal­ity among the crew in my time here, they’ve al­ways been pro­tected by their equip­ment.

“Af­ter 2020, if there’s a fa­tal­ity among the crew, whose re­spon­si­bil­ity will that be?”

The RNLI proudly states: “We aim to reach at least 90% of all ca­su­al­ties within 10 nau­ti­cal miles of the coast, within 30 min­utes of a lifeboat launch – in any weather.”

Huw Wil­liams de­clares that, un­for­tu­nately, this will be “im­pos­si­ble and un­achiev­able.”

The char­ity it­self in­sists that the New Quay crews have not been called to any in­ci­dents above the ca­pa­bil­ity of the smaller, in­shore lifeboat in the past five years, and claim that the change of life­sav­ing con­fig­u­ra­tion at New Quay will ac­tu­ally amount to an im­prove­ment to their life­sav­ing ca­pa­bil­ity in the area, stat­ing that the in­shore boat – the At­lantic 85 – is much faster than its all­weather coun­ter­part and that it can reach ca­su­al­ties more quickly.

A spokes­woman for the char­ity said: “The RNLI doesn’t take de­ci­sions like this lightly and would cer­tainly not con­tem­plate re­mov­ing a lifeboat if lives would be put at risk.”

This view has been echoed by Matt Crofts, life­sav­ing man­ager at RNLI, who says that, while the de­ci­sion is not a fi­nan­cial one, there is a duty “to be mind­ful of how we use the char­ity’s money.”

The RNLI in­sists that it will save around £8m by not hav­ing an all­weather lifeboat in New Quay, as they would have to fund a com­plete re­build of the build­ing which houses the boat, with the new model be­ing larger than the cur­rent one.

“We have to bal­ance the lack of cov­er­age with ca­su­alty po­ten­tial,” said Mr Crofts.

“The num­ber of peo­ple get­ting into trou­ble in that area are best served by the in­shore lifeboat.

“We to­tally un­der­stand the con­cerns that peo­ple have ex­pressed, but if we had some­one off­shore in that area in need of ur­gent medical as­sis­tance, the best as­set would be a he­li­copter – off­shore is an area where a multi-part­ner­ship op­er­a­tion is in place.”

Mr Crofts, a for­mer RNLI vol­un­teer him­self who’s been in­volved with the char­ity for 26 years, is keen to stress that the “highly emo­tive de­ci­sion” has not been taken lightly.

“We are not in the busi­ness of putting lives at risk.

“Also, we are not an ar­ro­gant char­ity – if some­thing changes over the course of a five or 10- year pe­riod that in­creases the risk, we will pay at­ten­tion to this.”

The pe­ti­tion to keep an all-weather lifeboat in New Quay has al­ready been signed more than 10,000 times – al­most 10 times the pop­u­la­tion of the town – and the cam­paign will con­tinue in the face of con­cern, re­as­sur­ance, sta­tis­tics and an­guish.

There is a grow­ing sense within the com­mu­nity that some­thing has to be done, and that the de­ci­sion taken by the RNLI will not be taken ly­ing down.

“It will be very sad to see it go,” said 77-year-old Win­ston Evans, a crew mem­ber at New Quay RNLI for 29 years, now re­tired.

“You’ve got to be­lieve we can change their minds, but it’s down to the them at the end of the day.”

Look­ing up at the lifeboat sta­tion where count­less life-sav­ing mis­sions have be­gun, he adds: “You live in hope.”

From left, son and fa­ther Jonathan and Win­ston Evans, both for­mer RNLI crew mem­bers; the New Quay in­shore

>

> New Quay’s cur­rent Mersey class lifeboat Frank and Lena Clif­ford of Stour­bridge in rough seas. In June it was an­nounced

Rick Tom­lin­son

the boat would be re­placed, mean­ing New Quay wil be with­out an all-weather boat for the first time since the 19th cen­tury

lifeboat in ac­tion and vol­un­teers at the lifeboat sta­tion

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