The 4th Emergency Service

In recent weeks we’ve all had cause to be grateful for the work of the emergency services, Police, Fire and Ambulance, but there is a 4th Emergency Service that is sometimes overlooked. It is, of course, the lifeboat service – the RNLI.

The country may be in lockdown but there are many people doing essential jobs who are still out there, working. Among these are the men and women of the RNLI, volunteers who are willing to drop everything and go to the help of people in trouble on – or in – the water.

The RNLI is separate from the Coastguard, independent of the Government and relies on its volunteers and supporters to run the lifesaving service. There are 10 lifeboat stations along the coastlines of Norfolk and Suffolk, 9 run by the RNLI and one independent station at Caister.

Picture: Hunstanton Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat Spirit of West Norfolk B-848 at sea.   Credit RNLI/Paul Tibbs Photography

The lifeboats they have at their disposal range from inshore boats such as the Atlantic 85, to all weather lifeboats such as the Tamar or Mersey class.

Picture: Wells Mersey class lifeboat Doris M Mann of Ampthill 12-003, ON 1161. Credit RNLI/Nicolas Leach

The lifeboat station at Hunstanton also has an inshore rescue hovercraft, one of only 4 in the RNLI fleet. RNLI inshore rescue hovercraft can reach areas inaccessible to conventional lifeboats, extending the lifesaving capability around the coast. Typically, the hovercraft operates on large areas of tidal mudflats or sand where the surface is too soft to support land vehicles and where the water is too shallow for boats.

Each year, these areas see a number of incidents where people are caught out by the rising tide or trapped in quicksand or soft mud. Unless help is provided rapidly, such situations often result in tragedy.

Pictures: Hunstanton hovercraft The Hunstanton Flyer H-003. Credit RNLI/Nigel Millard

If you have ever stood on the banks of the Wash and watched the tide come in you were probably amazed by the speed at which it happens. One moment you’re looking at sandbanks, the next moment they are covered by water. When conditions change as quickly as this a hovercraft can save lives. The other 3 RNLI stations equipped with hovercraft are at Hoylake, Morecambe and Southend-on-Sea.

Harry Roberts, the Hovercraft Commander at Morecambe, said: ‘Our hovercraft is invaluable. A lot of our rescues would be very difficult to execute in any other craft. This craft gives us a far quicker response time by allowing us to take the direct route across the estuary and mudflats, often to otherwise inaccessible areas.’

The RNLI has always worked hard to become more representative of the communities it serves and these days many of the volunteers who crew the lifeboats are women. In 2019  Hunstanton resident and lifeboat volunteer Charlie Parfitt became the RNLI’s first female Hovercraft Commander. She said, “I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work towards being a Commander and to have the support of my Station and fellow Crew mates, and extremely proud to be part of the RNLI and its history.” 

Picture: Copyright Jim Rice/RNLI

Lifeboat Stations in Norfolk and Suffolk

Cromer:   Established in 1804, Cromer Lifeboat Station has been awarded 56 medals for gallantry during its remarkable history. 

Happisburgh: Established in 1866, Happisburgh Lifeboat Station has operated from Cart Gap since 2010 due to coastal erosion at their previous site.

Great Yarmouth & Gorleston:  Celebrating nearly 200 years as a lifeboat station, Great Yarmouth and Gorleston has been presented with 58 awards for outstanding rescues.

Hunstanton:   Hunstanton Lifeboat Station saw the RNLI’s first motor tractor and today it operates an inshore B class Atlantic 85 lifeboat and one of only 4 inshore rescue hovercraft.  

Wells:   Lifeboat crews at Wells have been saving lives at sea since 1830 but the first RNLI lifeboat station was built in 1869.

Sheringham:   Sheringham has celebrated nearly 170 years as a lifeboat station. Operating as an inshore lifeboat station, it was the first station to receive a B class Atlantic 75 lifeboat.

Caister:   Caister Lifeboat has been saving lives at sea since 1791. It now operates as an independent station and is not part of the RNLI network.

Lowestoft:  Lowestoft is one of the oldest lifeboat stations in the British Isles. Many notable rescues have been carried out during Lowestoft’s history, including the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk, and the crews have received 45 awards for gallantry.

Southwold:   The station’s lifeboat was another of the 19 that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Over its 140-year history Southwold lifeboat crews have been presented with over 20 awards for gallantry. 

Aldeburgh:   The Aldeburgh lifeboat station evolved from the Suffolk Shipwreck Association station in 1851 which was originally in Sizewell and there has been a lifeboat here since that date.

Many of the lifeboat stations welcome visitors and their visitor experience teams give inspiring guided tours to young people and adult groups. Contact individual stations for more information.