Out on the river with Gravesend’s RNLI

PUBLISHED: 13:39 31 August 2012

RNLI Gravesend: Raymond Furlong, Kevin Butler, Mike Rountree

RNLI Gravesend: Raymond Furlong, Kevin Butler, Mike Rountree


I am having the work of the RNLI explained to me when all of a sudden some muffling comes through on the radio and my interviewee vanishes along with the rest of the crew.

Two minutes later they sprint out of a room dressed in dry suits, life jackets and helmets and another after a few minutes more they are on the lifeboat and speeding off along the River Thames.

It has been 10 years since the charity first set up camp in Gravesend and they treat every call that comes in with the utmost emergency.

On this occasion some children have been spotted playing in the river by Northfleet. The tide is deceptively strong and anyone going into the river unprotected could be in danger.

The RNLI arrive quickly – 15 minutes is their maximum response time depending on where the incident is on the 22-mile stretch of river covered by the Gravesend crew.

Luckily no one is in any trouble this time and they return back to base once the police have turned up.

It is a busy day of the team. Earlier this morning they went to rescue a man who whose boat had run aground.

The water was too shallow for them to reach the boat, but when Mike Rountree, an RNLI volunteer, jumped in with some rope it was still up to his neck.

It is up to the 30 or so volunteers, along with station manager Ian Dunkley and another full-timer, to keep people safe along this region of the Thames.

For 24 hours a day they man the station, each taking on two eight-hour shifts a month if not more.

They are called out to about 120 incidents a year, ranging from boats stuck in the mud, people in the water and the occasional suicide attempt.

Mike, 47, who works for BT, has been here since the start in 2001.

“I saw the lifeboats when I was a child and never thought I would get the opportunity to do it,” said Mike. “I’m a watersports fan and this way it’s something I can put back in to the community.”

When waiting for the next call the crew debrief and write reports, watch training videos and make cups of tea that often are left to get cold as another emergency comes in.

“There is no day the same,” said Kevin Butler, 52, a full-time crew member. “You could be out all day, other days just waiting ready to respond.”

They take me out on the boat on a training exercise.

We race along at 40 knots an hour and despite it being a warm August day the wind and sheets of water that fall on us are pretty cold.

I wouldn’t like to imagine what it’s like in the middle of winter.

But the RNLI take it all in their stride and are committed to the cause.

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