All Aboard the RNLI station at Waterloo, visit on 19th August 2017


Well, what a visit we had to the RNLI station, and the weather stayed dry for us, a bonus.

Martin, our host for the tour was an engaging raconteur and an active member of the crew at the Tower Station, was full of the statistics of the admirable RNLI organisation. However we started off with introductions all round and refreshments in their conference room, including very nice biscuits, the room was full of maps and information about the RNLI.

Just a few of the impressive highlights of the RNLI in 2016, they launched: 8851 times, saved 8643 people, an average of over 23 per day inc. 4 children, RNLI, the charity that saves lives directly!

Started in 1824, there are now 238 stations with 349 duty lifeboats and 240 beaches with Lifeguards across the UK and Republic of Ireland. This includes the 4 stations on the Thames, Gravesend, Teddington, Chiswick and the Tower as well as 3 other inland stations.

The Tower station, where we were, is the busiest station in the whole lifeboat network; they cover the Thames from Barking to Battersea, some 15 miles of river and launched 517 times in 2016 and saved 18 lives. They have already launched 250 times this year.

95% of all the people involved with the RNLI are volunteers, they have 4,700 crew, 3,000 volunteer shore crew and over 20,000 volunteer fund raisers. Typically the only paid person on the crews is the helmsmen/woman. All crew are first aider trained and they carry no passengers!

Martin emphasised the biggest killer was the coldness of the water, especially the Thames, which rapidly saps a victim’s strength and stops them from swimming. Therefore it is vital to get to the victim as quickly as possible; they launch at the Tower station in less than 90 seconds.

The Tower Station has 55 volunteer crew, which includes 10 women, and also includes our own Stephen Wheatley, who facilitated the visit, as well as 10 paid helmsmen. Because of the rapid response required they work 12 hour shifts to provide the service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is a waiting list of 200 to join the Tower volunteer crew. Full training is given to new members.

To run the lifeboat on a “Shout”, they must have at least three crew, but will generally aim to have four; made up of two full timers and two volunteers. To make sure they can leave the station within 90 seconds of an emergency call coming in, the crew have to be on station for the whole of their 12 hour shift.  Day shifts at 7am and the night shift takes over at 7pm. There is a bunk room so the on-duty night shift can try and get some sleep, after their training and before heading back to their day jobs, but emergency calls regularly come in during the small hours of the morning and the boat still has to be launched in 90 seconds.

Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit (River Police) unit were responsible for river rescues up to 2003. The RNLI became involved in 2002 and started at the Tower Pier before taking over river rescues in 2003. But they maintain a very close relationship with the River Police, who will often call them out for a shout. They are notified of an emergency by the Coastguard, who are typically notified by the police or the public, but they are always listening in to the police radio networks.

The Lifeboat station is one of the original 1860’s pontoons which the RNLI bought from the River Police, for a £1 and then restored. Another note of interest from Martin was the fact that the Thames is now one of the cleanest rivers in Europe, with seal and salmon in it, and there is even a salmon leap at Hampton Court locks.

We were also given an introduction and saw their boat, Hurley Burley, an E class inshore lifeboat designed specifically for river use, which is the fastest boat in the RNLI fleet, hitting 40 knots and can be out on a rescue for up to 3 hours, but are only used on the River Thames. Powered by 2 Volvo marine diesel engines of 435 HP each, and capable of rescuing 20 survivors include a stretcher patient. Keith was the helmsman/guide for our visit, and was a friend of Bertrand’s, and also Laura, who was training to do the next tour. Hurley Burley is 6 years into a life of service of between 15 to 25 years. The boat was donated by Mrs Burley, whose husband, known as Hurley, had died; it cost £420,000. There are 2 other similar boats and a spare one at Chiswick.

We then visited the Crew quarters and saw all the kit needed on a “Shout”, the life jacket alone costs £400, an helmet £300 and in total each crew member needs £1,000 of kit.

Interestingly it cost £177.3m to run the RNLI in 2016, fortunately they raised £182m from donations and legacies (60%), and they get no funding from the government at all! And have to pay many millions of £ in fuel duty on their diesel to the Government, a little strange to me!

If you are interested in the work of the RNLI, Saving Lives at Sea is currently on BBC2 at 20.00 on Tuesdays and some of the episodes feature the work of the Tower crew.

For more information on the RNLI Tower Station, have a look at:,

By Colin Spiller

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