By David EP Dennis 

The Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) crew is one of the most respected groups of professionals in Hastings. Along with the police, fire service and NHS ambulance and paramedic services, the Hastings Lifeboat is always on call to save lives. The major difference is that all those services except for the RNLI are paid for by the State from taxation. To save lives at sea, the RNLI charity needs your charitable donations to continue to provide their remarkable and selfless service. 

The Hastings RNLI crew have always shown outstanding bravery, certainly not foolhardy but not risk averse either. There is a fine line between life and death in a crisis situation, yet the men and women of the Hastings Lifeboat put their own lives at risk each time there is a rescue – purely to save the lives of others. 

This is not crazy behaviour but altruism: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” as the New Testament has it. The decision to put to sea in a storm or gale is taken by the coxswain, who will be a person of deep experience, well skilled in making critical judgements. The name derives from Old English ‘swain’ meaning servant – hence ‘boat servant’ – the one who is in charge of a boat (as opposed to a ship). While the first female RNLI crew member was Elizabeth Hostvedt in 1969, Di Bush in 2017 became the first full-time mechanic of the Harwich Lifeboat, and four years later was appointed coxswain – hence she became RNLI’s first female coxswain.

We probably all admire our lifeboat crew – but how did the lifeboat service begin, and how many people has it rescued? 

The world’s first lifeboat was invented in 1785. Britain’s first lifeboat service was formed almost two hundred years ago, in 1824. At the same time, the Lifeboat service (now RNLI) has saved thousands of lives. To be precise they have saved 140,000 lives since 1824 and 2,500 medals have been issued to those showing exceptional bravery. 

Grace Darling

There is one early rescue that swayed public opinion more than many others – Grace Darling and the Forfarshire in which a woman took part in a rescue – allowing Victorian women to think themselves capable of heroism. Here is the painting of the incident. At 4am on 7 September 1838, this steamship was wrecked after striking Big Harcar Rock, a mile from Longstone Lighthouse near the Northumberland Farne Islands. 

Grace Darling at the Forfarshire -7th September 1838
by Thomas Musgrave Joy (9 July 1812 – 7 April 1866)

CREDIT: Dundee Art Galleries and Museum Collection. Dundee City Council/ Wikimedia Commons

A painter known principally for his portraits, Thomas Musgrove Joy, painted this in 1840, having met face-to-face with the Grace Darling and her father who were at the time hailed as Victorian heroes. He had also seen the remains of the wreck. Joy took verbatim notes from the mouths of Grace Darling and her father during their sojourn with
the artist. 

In 2021, the RNLI website explained: “The artist Joy asked William Darling to describe exactly where each person was situated in the coble (rowing boat) during the rescue so he could paint an accurate image of the events. He lodged ‘for several weeks’ with the Darlings. ‘Very pleasant he was’ the family recorded.” 

Almost twenty-five years (1861) after the Grace Darling rescue (1838), John Stuart Mill sowed the seed of an idea in his book The Subjection of Women, into fertile intellectual ground, that women should be equal to men. Eventually the Suffragette movement evolved – and women were even permitted to go to university and graduate in May 1869. Even so, it has taken from the 1838 rescue of the Forfarshire to 2021 for the first ever female RNLI coxswain to be appointed, Di Bush of Harwich RNLI. 

Female Volunteers in Hastings

So what about Hastings RNLI and women? Is it a lads-only sort of set-up? Absolutely not! 

On 9 May the lifeboat service launch was entirely female. The Hastings RNLI press officer Johanna Whitaker reported: “The RNLI volunteers received the alert at 3:29pm and launched the inshore D class lifeboat (ILB) Richard Francis at 3.40pm. Long-time volunteer, but recently trained driver, Holly Lane, drove the Bobcat, the vehicle responsible for getting the lifeboat to the sea. Linda Revill acted as Beach Marshal, while Sarah Milne took the role of Head Launcher, supported by Lynda Franklin who formed part of the shore crew. Sarah has also recently been appointed Hastings RNLI Water Safety Officer.”

Holly Lane, Hastings RNLI Volunteer, said: “We all respond as quickly as we can when we receive an alert, and Monday was no different. All volunteers, no matter their gender, work as one crew and many of us are trained in multiple roles, not all require us to head out to sea. 

“We were relieved the swimmer was recovered safely and we are glad we were contacted and able to respond so quickly.” 

CREDIT: Ben Bruges

So just as in the Wreck of the Forfarshire incident, it is not just men – but men and women who are the brave ones who save us from the perils of the sea. The very latest rescue figures available (for 2020) show the continuing dedication and remarkable level of courage: in just that one year, RNLI lifeboats launched 8,239 times, aided 8,374 people, and saved 239 lives. 

To say thank you, why not donate via the RNLI website: / Or you could consider volunteering – becoming a ‘deckhand’ means you would make yourself available to be contacted if there’s some kind of local need, like helping with fundraising, in the RNLI shop. There are also internships
available three times a year. Then, of course, there’s the ultimate goal – for many – to become a lifeboat station or shore crew. Obviously, that it is the biggest commitment of all, but training and support are available. 

If you want to consider that, have a look at Hastings RNLI website

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