A lifetime of lifeboats

Join author Richard Clubley for his latest thoughts on life in Orkney.

In 1957, aged six, I was admitted to Hull Royal Infirmary for a tonsillectomy. The operation was standard practice for children in those days.

I was, not un-naturally, a little scared of the prospect of a night without my mum.

The promise of generous helpings of ice cream afterwards helped keep my spirits up. In the event, the scariest part of the whole stay was waking up at dead of night and seeing a nurse wearing a face mask walk past the foot of my bed. I didn’t understand and, of course, children are scared of those things they don’t understand. I guess we’ll have a whole generation of children growing up totally comfortable with masks now. Who’d have thought it?

Anyway, I’m told I was a brave lad and, as a reward, I was taken to my favourite Hull toy shop to choose a toy. I chose a clockwork model lifeboat and was taken soon afterwards to Peasholme Park, Scarborough, for sea trials. Two things happened that day which I have never forgotten. First: a lady walking by offered the opinion my boat was: ‘…not going very fast, for a lifeboat.’ Second: my big sister broke the steering wheel off.

Many of you, familiar only with the modern lifeboats at your local stations – such as the all-weather, Severn Class boats in Stromness, Kirkwall and Longhope, Orkney, may wonder how the steering wheel could get broken off, protected as it is inside the wheelhouse.

Remember though this was 1957 and my model was probably of the Barnett Class – like the JJKSW which had been in service at Stromness until 1955. The original Barnett was 60 feet long and too heavy to be slipway-launched, so a modified version of 51 feet was built to fit the slipway – which can still be seen at the Red Shed in Stromness harbour.

Stromness was the first station to get the new boat so it became known as the Barnett/Stromness type. The steering wheel was on the open, aft cockpit. It was one of those big, wooden ones with handles sticking out all the way round – that’s how mine came to get broken off so easily.

I felt very protective towards my lifeboat after that. Since then I grew up watching the Spurn Head (Yorkshire) lifeboat go down the slipway, with Brian Bevan at the helm – one of the most decorated of all lifeboat coxswains. On holiday in Wales I have watched the Mumbles lifeboat splash into the water for the crowds on Lifeboat Day, and then be put through her paces with the coastguard helicopter. It gives me goose bumps every time.

Sixty years after the minor operation in Hull, and the massive affront in Peasholme Park, Stewart Taylor, then lifeboat operations manager for Stromness Lifeboat Station, asked if I would be lifeboat press officer for Stromness. ‘You’ll have to get to know the crew and the boat; maybe go out on the odd exercise; you’ll have a pager so you’ll always know when we’re called out. You can help out with fund raising too.’ I thought hard about it – for half a second – and then said ‘Yes’.

As a writer the opportunity to write about the lifeboat, and in so doing help the charity in some small way, is a privilege. It is the greatest privilege of my life in fact.

Since then I’ve been with the boat to mark the 80th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Royal Oak at the start of World War II; called for a quick check at an oil platform when they lowered us a bag full of chocolate, along with a note saying ‘thanks for being there’; I also went to the Old Man of Hoy to get some photos of the boat with the rock stack.

I have written for Orkney.com about moving to Orkney and finding a place in the community. Everyone is my neighbour I said. Being able to sit in lifeboat committee meetings is a closer involvement in the community than I ever thought possible and I love it.

After the formal, business part of the meeting is over the chairman will sometime preside over what he refers to as a ‘good yarn’. Everyone slips back into their strong, local accent and dialect and I strain to keep up with the thread of the story. ‘It’s brilliant, having a good yarn.’ Said the chairman after one such session. ‘It might be,’ I said, ‘if I could follow a word of it.’

Richard writes regularly for Scottish Islands Explorer. His first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. 'Orkney – A Special Place' appeared in 2017, with 'Orkney - A Special Way of Life' arriving in 2021. The books are published by Luath Press, Edinburgh

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