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...
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
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