You may think that not much happens on the Thames around Teddington.
You might think that the RNLI don’t even have a presence on the Thames.
You would be wrong on both counts …
Since 2002, the RNLI has had four lifeboat stations on the River Thames:
Tower at Victoria Embankment (consistently one of the Charity’s busiest)
Gravesend in Kent
and Teddington in Middlesex. Teddington is the only lifeboat station that is manned entirely by volunteer crew.
In 2014, when Into the Mourning Light was published, I was contacted by Teddington helm, Andy Butterfield. His email included, “I saw your story in the Richmond and Twickenham Times on Friday. It was very sad to read your story and so I wanted to write just to let you know of some of the success the RNLI are having on the river …The Teddington RNLI have started training riverside bar staff initially in Kingston, but now also Richmond in the use of throw lines and providing basic first aid”.
In response, I contacted Andy to learn more about what was happening. To put it into perspective, the time scale was nine years after James’ passing; and some six years since we completed our campaign with Kingston Council for safety improvements along the Kingston stretch of the river.
Andy was my introduction, initially to the work of the RNLI on the Thames. Through Andy, and RNLI colleagues Guy Addington, John Soones and Ross Macleod, to name just a few, I was to become involved in the coastal/tidal Respect the Water campaign, and ultimately also the National Water Safety Forum, my most recent written input being in their Strategy document.
Throughout the time of my involvement with the RNLI, Andy and I never actually met and our paths did not cross at the various RNLI events I attended. We have kept in contact though, and a couple of weeks ago we finally met at the Teddington Lifeboat station on a chilly Sunday morning.
Shaun and I were treated to a personal VIP tour of the lifeboat station with Andy and his colleague Jon Barker.
We saw the two D Class inshore lifeboats which have been generously donated by local residents, the first named in memory of Hilary Saw’s parents, and the new boat, which is to be officially launched in May, named for Hilary’s late husband Peter.
We learned much of what happens on a ‘shout’ and how quickly everyone responds and reacts. The timings are crucial and therefore it is imperative that volunteers live very close to the station and are quickly able to respond should their pagers go off. A lifeboat can be launched in five minutes. The waterproofs the volunteers wear are incredibly heavy and must be very hot in summer.
Jon talked of the training he does with local schools and scout groups. It is obvious by his enthusiasm that he and his fellow volunteers are able to provide youngsters with the knowledge they need to stay safe around water and also to inspire them by sharing the work of the RNLI.
It seems to me that there has been a shift within the RNLI and today, their aim is, through their training work, to raise awareness across the board to help people understand how to stay safe around all areas of open water.
Andy drives the training initiatives along the riverside bars and restaurants. There is tremendous personal poignancy in this image from one of last summer’s training exercises in Kingston, with James’ memorial plaque visible in the background.
In February 2016 Andy coordinated an extensive mass casualty training exercise which mocked up a pleasure boat being run aground with numerous casualties on board, who had to be safely evacuated.
The RNLI joined forces with a local company, Turks Launches, to produce the scenario-based training. The casualties were in full moulage (mock injuries for the purpose of training) and ranged from completely unresponsive casualties to the walking wounded. Both Teddington lifeboats were launched.
In the press report of the event, I read that Andy was first on the scene. He said, “I had three things running through my mind at all times. Firstly, what is the risk to my crew and the casualties? Secondly, how many casualties are there and what is their condition? And thirdly, how do I get them all to safety?”
The helmsman of the second Teddington lifeboat was tasked with ‘walking the floor’ of the vessel to ensure that everyone was accounted for. An evacuation plan was formed with the crew on the vessel and all the casualties were eventually safely removed from the boat.
After what was a very successful collaborative exercise, Andy said, “Scenario-based training like this is crucial to the development of our skills as RNLI crew. It is also in our interest to collaborate while training with fellow river users as it helps to prevent future incidents and their feedback is useful for improvements”. The collaborative exercise was a great success.
However, despite the best efforts of the RNLI and other organisations, accidental drownings still happen, sadly in Kingston as well as elsewhere. But the good news is that along the Kingston stretch of the river, we know that lives have been saved by individuals working at the pubs and restaurants. They have been trained following our loss in 2005, subsequent campaign for improved river safety and the access to training facilitated by the RNLI. This fact alone is incredibly gratifying for us, as naturally, we view the loss of James in 2005 as a significant catalyst for change in the area. Our campaign with Kingston Council proved to be just the start of positive forward moves in river safety.
Andy is responsible for the introduction of throw bag training, first aid and recovery sessions along the stretch of the Thames between Molesey Lock and Putney Bridge, particularly focusing on the busiest sections around Richmond and Kingston.
I am grateful to him and his co-trainers for their efforts. Having met Andy and Jon I am even more impressed by their dedication to voluntary service, underpinned by their commitment to saving lives. Andy and Jon reflect the ethos of every single person whom I have met who is involved with the RNLI: a sincere desire to improve water safety universally and to prevent unnecessary loss of life.
These men and women of the RNLI leave their egos outside the door and concentrate on the tasks they face in an utterly commendable way, often in challenging and perilous circumstances.
I wonder whether the RNLI should no longer be viewed just as ‘the charity that saves lives at sea’ but as the charity ‘that saves lives at sea and also prevents loss of life, at sea and on inland waterways and rivers’.
I hope I have managed to inform that plenty happens on the river around Teddington and the RNLI are indeed a great presence on the Thames.