The UK's Busiest Lifeboat Station Is Hiding In Plain Sight By Waterloo Bridge

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 03 March 2023

The UK's Busiest Lifeboat Station Is Hiding In Plain Sight By Waterloo Bridge
The team kitted out, ready to hit the river
The crew of the busiest lifeboat station in the UK. (l-r) Craig Campion (Thames commander), Jai Gudgion (Thames commander), Giles Harrison (volunteer), Ellie Ribbits (trainee volunteer). Image: Paige Kahn

By the north end of Waterloo Bridge a long white pavilion gently bobs up and down on the banks of the Thames. You might have passed it dozens of times without paying it much attention. In fact, it's the busiest lifeboat station in the UK.

Inside Tower Station, waiting for the 'bat phone' to ring with their next callout is a group of  full-timers and volunteers, equipped to take on the capricious Thames, and willing to risk their own lives in the endeavour to save others.

The list of rescues and lives saved
There are very strict criteria for a 'life saved'. Image: Paige Kahn

"We do some cleaning, we do some training, we do some tea drinking," grins Giles Harrison, a documentary filmmaker who's been volunteering at the station for around 10 years.

"You've got to keep yourself occupied, otherwise you'll go nuts" chips in Craig Campion, one of the Thames commanders who pilots the jet-propelled E class lifeboats moored up outside.

Giles Harrison is a documentary filmmaker and a part-time life saver. Image: Paige Kahn

Above a desk in the kitchen-TV room hangs an ever-changing record, the numbers flipped over like a calendar:

  • Call outs this year: 142
  • Lives saved this year: 03
  • Total lives saved: 354

As a volunteer, you might go weeks on end without getting a 'shout' but conversely, things can get manic. Last night they had no less than six shouts, says Harrison.

A lifeboat zips past Tower Bridge
The RNLI station here is one of only four that are manned 24 hours a day. Image: Laura Lewis

Tower Station is one of four stations covering the Thames (the others are Gravesend, Chiswick and Teddington); its beat is between Margaret Ness in Greenwich, up to the Putney Bridge/Wandsworth area.

Unlike most RNLI stations, this one is manned 24 hours a day. And whereas coastal stations must launch within 10 minutes, the Tower team has to be out on the water in just 90 seconds.

"If someone's in the water, seconds do matter," says Harrison. "Even an Olympic swimmer can't swim against the tide."

Two RNLI staff sitting as a table, with the Thames outside the window
"We do some cleaning, we do some training, we do some tea drinking." Image: Paige Kahn

While the sea is a perilous, untamed entity, the River Thames is a beast of its own, littered with obstacles — moorings, bridges, buttresses, the foundations of old piers — not to mention a slew of river traffic.

Knowing the lay of the land — or in this case, water — is a crucial part of the Thames commander's role.

For the volunteers tasked with locating people in the water, spotting a head in the river isn't easy, and while there's more light on the Thames than on the sea, this can sometimes be a hindrance as much as a help.

"It's a rush of adrenaline and nerves"

The kit room/gym. Image: Paige Kahn

The boats used on the Thames are different from most other RNLI models. "The key thing is that they are jet boats, they don't use propellors," explains Harrison, "They suck the water and that's much safer if people are in there. And it means we can get into shallower water. They can be faster, too."

Alongside the police boats patrolling the Thames, the RNLI's boats are the zippiest on the river. But you can also slam the brakes on, and stop within the length of your boat. It takes some getting used to though. "I drove props for 20 years then came here, and was 'woah, hang on a minute, this is back to front!'" laughs Campion.

Interestingly, the tech isn't strictly new; the first jet-powered lifeboat was in service in 1890 — it was steam powered, and used waterjets instead of propellers.

The first steam powered lifeboat, which was in operation in 1890. Image: RNLI

The Tower team gets 500-600 callouts a year — the second busiest lifeboat station gets around 350. "It's fair to say that no other station is surrounded by a city of eight million people," says Harrison.

It's the job of the Coastguard to coordinate search and rescue efforts, making a decision on whether to send the police boat, RNLI or fire boat — although it's not unusual to have more than one service arrive on the scene.

A boat name: Hurly Burley
Boats are often named for the people who donate the money to buy them. Image: Paige Kahn

So how does it feel when you have that first callout as a volunteer — getting kitted up in the bright yellow waterproof, and jumping onto the 'fourth seat' of the boat, as it fires up those two Volvo engines, and zips out onto the water?

"It's a rush of adrenaline and nerves," says Harrison.

A team of four pose on the front of the boat
Boats are usually manned by four people — two Thames commanders and two volunteers. Image: Paige Kahn

Ellie Ribbits, a trainee volunteer who's been here since November 2021 tells us: "My heart stopped. The adrenaline kicked in straight away.

"Apparently I was quite cool, calm and collected on the outside... I did not feel it on the inside. But I felt like I was in safe hands."

"Drink, drugs, devilment or despair"

Giles wearing a bright yellow RNLI apron, points to a map of the Thames
Only 50% of Tower Station's callouts involve people in, or in danger of being in, the water. Image: Paige Kahn

We think of the lifeboat service saving the lives of drowning people, but that's not always the case.

50% of Tower Station's callouts are actually medical emergencies aboard boats on the river — heart attacks, people falling down stairs, that kind of thing.

The other half of the job is attending callouts to people in the water or in danger of entering it. "There are four reasons why they might be there," explains Harrison, "drink, drugs, devilment or despair." (The 'devilment' aspect concerns those who think they'll be OK braving the waters, only to swiftly find they're not.)

As tack of Lifeboat magazines
Image: Paige Kahn

Once the boat arrives on the scene, the team gets to work identifying the people in the water. There are searchlights and a radar for when it's foggy and dark.

Harrison shares a little trade secret with us: blankets are stored in lockers in the back of the boat, right next to the engine. When they're taken out for use, they're nice and toasty.

On successful rescue callouts, patients are transferred to the London Ambulance Service, although more often than not they're taken back to Tower Station first, where they can get out of wet clothes and warm up.

This doesn't necessarily count as a 'saved life' though. There are strict criteria for chalking up one of those.

A close up the crew of a boat out on the Thames
There have been 2,000+ rescues for Tower Station since it opened. Image: Laura Lewis

Tower Station can only claim to have saved a life if they rescue someone from the water, and are the only boat on the scene. So although they've officially saved 354 lives to date, who knows how many more than that they've really saved.

In all, there have been 2,000+ rescues for Tower Station since it opened. "In its history, the RNLI has saved over 142,000 lives," says Harrison, "That's a big number. I find that astonishing."

A white helmet on the dock next to a boat
Image: Paige Kahn

Being part of any RNLI team means confronting emotional and distressing situations. At Tower Station, as with others, there is a solid support camaraderie within the crew, and a formal process that kicks in if there's any job that's been potentially traumatic.

"It doesn't necessarily mean there's blood and gore everywhere," says Harrison, "But it might just be we fished a 12-year-old girl out of the river."

Three crew members who are counselling trained, and volunteers and crew members can also go to a different RNLI station for support.

A new era for Tower Station

The front of the station with the RNLI flag, and a sign saying: Lifeboats
The station is being replaced with a new £8 million design. Image: Paige Kahn

If Tower Station sounds an odd named for something located at Waterloo, there's a reason for that.

The RNLI team was originally downriver by Tower Bridge, only moving to Waterloo in 2006. A framed pound coin in the training room is the one they used to purchase the current pier off its previous owners, the river police.

"They gave us the pound back as a donation!" laughs Harrison.

The pier itself has been at this spot in Waterloo for some 150 years, but it's being replaced with a new station in 2023. This will be twice the size of the current one, giving the staff the space they need to train and relax, as well as providing space for school groups to come here and learn about the vital work being done here.

A lifeboat training handbook
Image: Paige Kahn

The new station will cost a not-insignificant £8 million, and will be built thanks almost entirely to donations. (92% of RNLI funding arrives this way, and any contribution is always greatly received).

As for those who'd like to become more hands on with the RNLI? You need to get lucky.

Aside from 10 full-time paid members of staff, who drive the boats and take care of the mechanics, Tower Station is manned by around 65 volunteers. Each is put through intensive preparation, where they learn to use everything from searchlights to tow ropes — and are to trained up to the level of an ambulance technician.

Close up of someone in a yellow RNLI jacket
You can volunteer to join the RNLI, but will need to get lucky. Image: Paige Kahn

These volunteers work a minimum of two shifts a month, although often do more. Such is the interest in becoming a volunteer — particularly in the wake of shows like the BBC documentary, Saving Lives at Sea — Tower Station is oversubscribed with volunteers.

A waiting list isn't practical, so if you're desperate to volunteer, you'll need a lot of tenacity, and a pinch of good fortune. Ellie Ribbits emailed for two years. "I finally got my email back!" she grins.

The pier from across the water illuminated at night
Image: RNLI

To learn more about the new Tower Station, and to donate, visit the official website.

If you've been affected by any of the issues in this article, Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call them on 116 123, or contact them in other ways.