Londonist Interviews Keith McDonald, The Man From The RNLI

By londonist_mark Last edited 154 months ago
Londonist Interviews Keith McDonald, The Man From The RNLI

Raleigh's blood flows through our veins. Summer's on it's way and that means a return to our heritage as thousands of us hurl ourselves into the nearest available sailing vessel for floating frolics ahoy. Most will do little more than get a little drunk, drive too fast and scare a few ducks or frighten the fish. But some will come a serious cropper. The RNLI reported an 8% increase in call outs last year, most involving pleasure boats during the summer months. So any extended sunshine is unlikely to stem the tide of marooned mariners trying to get the Jaws theme out of their heads.

What you perhaps don't think of is that some of these call outs will take place on the Thames and should you be one of them, then the men with the orange jackets will be there to pull you to safety from a potentially watery grave. We caught up with Keith McDonald, who works at the Teddington life boat station, to ask him a few questions about what it is the lifeboat crews do on our own, muddy stretch of water.

We tend to think of lifeboats as being something you get at sea. How many life boat stations are there along the Thames and are there many across Britain's other waterways?

There are four lifeboat stations on the Thames. They are located at Gravesend, Tower Pier (now at Waterloo Pier), Chiswick and Teddington. The first three stations are crewed 24 hours a day, whereas Teddington operates on a pager service, similar to most coastal stations. They were set up as a result of the Marchioness disaster and became operational in January 2002. Other inland RNLI stations can be found at South Broads near Lowestoft and at Lough Erne and Lough Derg in Ireland.

How do you get involved with being on a life boat crew? What kind of qualifications do you need? Can anyone sign up?

I became involved after seeing an article in the local paper requesting crew to form the new station at Teddington. I have been a long time supporter of the RNLI and the chance to actually be crew was too hard to resist. My previous boating experience was limited to occasional canoeing and use of the cross-channel ferry. This is fairly normal now within the RNLI as only about 1 in 10 crew come from a maritime background.

There are no formal qualifications required to become a crew member. It does help if you have some knowledge of boats (eg Day Skipper/Powerboat certificate) but it is not essential. You must be over 18 and under 55 (for Thames work) and live (or work) within three minutes of the lifeboat station. You must also be physically fit and pass a medical and eyesight test.

You must have to do a great deal of training, is it a time consuming job?

Training is one of the major aspects of crew work and we train once a week. Not only must you become proficient at boat handling, you must also know about first aid, VHF radio and even be able to drive a tractor. It does become part of your life and you feel undressed without your pager.

Does it pay well / at all and where does all the funding come from?

For all the hours commitment that you give, you will receive no pay. The RNLI is a charity and exists solely on voluntary contributions from the public. As crew, you are trained to a very high standard and the reward is the opportunity to save someone's life. When you do that, money becomes irrelevant.

Could your role not easily be handled by the Environment Agency or Port of London Authority?

The RNLI is the only dedicated search and rescue service on the Thames. We work in conjunction with EA/PLA, police and the fire brigade. All the services are co-ordinated by HM Coastguard who are based at Woolwich.

Your station is on the non tidal part of the Thames at Teddington Lock. What kind of things do you tend to get involved in?

Downstream, we cover from Richmond Half Lock to Teddington, which is tidal. Upstream, we cover as far as Molesey Lock and we are expected to be on scene anywhere within that patch within 15 minutes of the pager alert. Sadly, a lot of our work is dealing with potential suicide situations where people are threatening to jump of bridges. Otherwise, we have been called out to anything from people stranded by high tides to boats losing power and heading down into the weir.

We presume that most incidents involve basic human stupidity. Any tips to avoid a soggy trip home with the boys in orange?

Don't let go your lines until your engines are running. Also, those signs about not parking because the area is liable to flooding are not a practical joke by the council.

What do you do in the lifeboat when there isn't anything to rescue?

Practice, practice, practice. We occasionally attend regattas and other events on the river to provide cover but our primary purpose is to be there in an emergency.

What's the strangest thing that has happened in the lifeboat (did you go to help the whale in the Thames?)

Some people may remember the 'head' in the first Jaws film. I had a similar fright when we were called to investigate a car down beside Richmond Road Bridge. The car was in the water after a particularly high tide and there was a fear that someone may be trapped. I looked inside the cabin of the car and saw nothing at first. Then, this 'head' appeared staring out, just floating in the car. It transpired that it was a hairdresser's practice dummy but we were not to know that at the time!

What's the worst incident you've ever been involved in?

One rather frightening episode was when we had to recover a boat that had broken its moorings at Richmond and was heading down to the bridge on a rather fast, ebbing tide. We just managed to get a line on when a plastic fantastic motored by creating a very large wash. Trying to control a loose boat with a stern tow on in those conditions called for some very deft boat handling.

And what's the most moving thing that your lifeboat has taken part in?

Saving someone's life is always the most moving. I have helped out on two occasions when, due to our actions, a person is now here who would not have been otherwise. It is why you do the job in the first place.

Is the Thames the best way to experience London and are we doing enough to look after it?

The Thames is certainly my favourite way to see London but I am biased. There are many sights that can only be appreciated from the water and by its very nature, causes you to slow down a bit and take your time. Much more relaxing.

The Thames has improved greatly over the years, considering the mess that it used to be in. People should not become complacent, as there is still a lot more to do. The river should be treated with respect, as it can be a very dangerous place but like the sea, it can be very beautiful too.


Those boats look pretty cool, do you ever get involved in any James Bond style incidents?

Our main boat at Teddington can do 25 knots, which would be fast enough for Mr Bond. However, because the boat is bright orange, it does not lend itself well to international espionage.

Do you ever get days when you just speed up and down the river for fun?

No, even we must keep to the speed limits when not directly involved in an emergency call out.

Tell us something about lifeboats that we wouldn't know.

Teddington Lifeboat station has two boats, one of which (D576 - Spirit of the Thames) was the last of the older style D class boats to be built.

Seasickness must be an issue from time to time, any embarrasing incidents?

I can neither confirm nor deny any embarrassing moments :-) There was the occasion when one of our crew went to fetch one man out of the water by grabbing hold of his trousers, only to find out that he was not wearing any!

Anyone wishing to support the work of the RNLI then they can find more information here.

Last Updated 23 March 2006