RNLI RIB training
by Paul Glatzel
"Atlantic Course Leader this is Coastguard helicopter India Juliet . . ."
If you are ever unfortunate enough to run into trouble at sea then there won't be a better sight than a RNLI RIB heading towards you at speed to take you in tow or pluck you from a sinking craft. But who's in that RIB and what training do they go through?
To find out I had been invited by the RNLI to attend their Training centre in Cowes and become part of one of their RIB training courses. I arrived in Cowes at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre after a fairly rough crossing from Southampton to take my place on the Atlantic Helmsman's Course. The course had already been running for two days but from the itinery I had it looked like I had arrived for the best bits!
RNLI RIBs working with the coastguard helicopter
The centre at Cowes is responsible for the build and fit out of the RNLI RIBs and providing all of the training on them for crews from all over the UK and Ireland. The courses run range from beginners courses for new crew through PWC courses for the PWCs now used by the Beach Rescue teams to the sort of advanced Helmsman's course that I had been invited to attend.
The large RIBs that you usually see around the coast are Atlantic 75s or in some cases the older Atlantic 21s. As you would expect from a craft costing about £80,000 the Atlantic 75 is an incredible craft, well set up by the engineers at Cowes and totally suited to the tasks to which it is put. The three crew man a craft with twin Evinrude 70s which are 'immersion proofed' to allow them to be inverted yet restarted, twin separate fuel and ignition systems and a kit list most RIB owners would die for! For me one of the most striking aspects of the RIBs were how well everything was setup, each little bit of kit had its place, its tie-downs and generally more than one use - perhaps to be expected but impressive none-the-less.
A flotilla of Atlantic 75's and 21's
The Atlantic Helmsman's Course is aimed at lifeboat crew who range from the fairly inexperienced with to those with 15-20 years experience. The two main Instructors are RYA Powerboat Trainers and are supported by two other full time Instructors plus a handful of Instructors who have dual roles split between making or servicing the craft and Instructing crews in their use. Our course leader, Glen Mallen, has been in the training team for about four years, prior to this role he was on the Rye Harbour crew for many years. Along with his colleagues he has been instrumental in the RNLI recently revamping its courses to adopt a 'competency based training' methodology, bringing state of the art training methods to environment where historically training had occurred more 'on-station' and by passing experience through the generations.
The week starts with a direct assessment level 2 which everyone is expected to 'cruise'. Such an assessment may sound strange as you would expect lifeboatmen/women to always be avid boaters however around 80% of new crew nowadays have no association with boating in any form! From there it moves on to cover navigation, tides and so on. The morning I joined the course Glen had started to discuss 'pacing'. This is the method whereby a RIB comes alongside another moving craft at speed to run alongside it. This is such a dangerous manoeuvre that the crews are banned from practicing it on station and are were warned that they would immediately be removed from the crew if found trying it! The danger comes from the pressure waves that a fast moving craft creates around itself which can, if not handled correctly cause the RIB to be pulled under the craft or back round to the stern of the craft into the props! - having learnt all of this off we went to try it out!
There were six Atlantics in total (a mixture of 75s & 21s) each with 2 or 3 students and an Instructor on board. As we headed up the Medina Glen informed Solent Coastguard we were 'SAR capable' and available for any rescue situations that arose - anyone running into trouble in the Solent that day would have had the mother of all rescues with so many Atlantics available to assist! - nothing came our way though. Pairing up we practiced coming alongside our partner RIB, in some moderately bumpy seas this was fun but never worrying - even when one RIB would land slightly on the other after hitting a wave. We reached Yarmouth and had some lunch before heading out to the Needles. The Needles was a bit tame which was a bit disappointing however a strong tidal race (c5 knots) caused some fun as we practiced coming alongside the Bridge Cardinal buoy both uptide and downtide in some lumpy conditions. Next up was Veering. Veering is the term given to using the anchor and engines to reverse towards a cliff or beach where it would be impossible to drive in due to breaking seas. Under the 300ft cliffs we anchored about 100ft off the cliffs and switched off and raised the starboard engine (if we trashed one engine we would still have one left) one crew member went forward to play out the anchor line under the command of the helmsman whilst the other went to the rear using two paddles joined together (the RNLI have a bit of kit to do just this!) to depth test. With the port engine heavily in reverse slowly we edged back towards the cliff in a 10 foot swell eventually ending up 1-2ft away, the tautness of the anchor line being held by the engine meaning we held a fairly precise position. This technique is used to recover casualties from cliffs/rocks in seas that would be too rough to drive into or for lee shore rescues.
RNLI crew modeling thier new Gecko helmets
After an hour or two under the cliffs we punched back to Yarmouth through worsening seas to get a coffee and Mars bar at the Yarmouth station. In the spirit of co-operation and training the Yarmouth crew of the all weather Severn lifeboat turned out at dusk to give us a bigger craft to practise pacing with. Now this was fun! Wind against tide and a force 7 rising force 8 and we were to drive our craft alongside the multimillion pound pride and joy of the Yarmouth crew - they must be mad - or very trusting of our ability!. The technique with a larger craft is to drive alongside steering between the bow and stern waves then once alongside the vessel powering up and turning fully in to the vessel to hold position, this might not appear too difficult but it is, especially when you factor in the weather and tidal conditions which made it rather amusing. Sadly we were forced to abort after the Atlantic before us in the queue to go alongside went vertical and looked set to land on the deck of the Severn.
So there we were just east of Yarmouth in what was now a force 8 and it was pitch black. To get back we decided to execute the night navigation plan we had earlier prepared which entailed criss-crossing the Solent buoy hopping up to Cowes. I have never driven such weather at night (indeed the Atlantic's won't typically go out at night over force 6 - 7) however it was really interesting to see how much better we all drove without the benefit of sight. Inevitably we hit some waves badly but on the whole we drove the waves by feel and better than we had during the day, there was only one dodgy moment when we hit a wave and went vertical to then just seem to hang there and be blown backwards/over. We came down okay - albeit with a big jolt.
We arrived back into Cowes for about 9pm and back into the classroom, an hour later following a session on search area determination and we were off to the pub for dinner, a drink and a much needed sleep.
A sight you really don't want to see very often . . .
Thursday started with a brief on the mornings helicopter exercise which was to kick off at 10am with the Coastguard helicopter India Juliet. A slight delay led us out onto the Medina to practice with the RNLI's recently acquired dinghies, kayaks and yachts which are used to give first hand experience to crews of rigging & de rigging, getting sails down and so on. Out into the Solent we met up with India Juliet and started our run up towards Cowes from Yarmouth into the wind (the helicopter needs to fly into the wind to maintain lift). We were to practice positioning ourselves under the helicopter allowing the winch operator to drop the winchman (a slightly mad individual in my opinion to do that job) into the bow of the RIB. Not too difficult you may think until you factor in the need for the helmsman to drive into a force 5-6 only looking up and not watching the sea at all to position the RIB at speed within 2-3 foot of the target position under the 'helo'. After we had all achieved this we stopped and began a 'highline' transfer. With this technique a line is dropped into a stationary boat allowing the helo to drop the winchman in without hovering directly above - which with a yacht would be difficult and potentially painful as the winchman lands on the mast!
This finished back to Cowes for a quick bite to eat before getting stuck into a search & rescue exercise. We started the afternoon discussing Risk and the need to ensure the safety of the crew in any rescue situation, the danger the crews face was brought home by a sobering video which saw a US rescue RIB trying to recover a dead diver from the water be flipped over by a breaking wave throwing its crew into a vicious sea near rocks. To then find out that the entire lifeboat crew were lost brought a silence and tension to the room which was very moving.
Winching aboard the coatguard helicopter
To give the crews a feel for the difficulties faced by the Coastguard in a SAR (Search & Rescue) situation teams paired into a 'lifeboat crew' and a 'coastguard crew' each taking turns to control the rescue or be on the water executing it. Each exercise worked well and we ran through a process where we were tasked to an area then undertook a search of the area followed by (in our case) recovery of a kayak and dummy from the water. At the same time our 'Coastguard' had been working from their very limited data ("I saw a kayak - I think - 1 mile offshore (or was it two) it seemed in trouble") then using tidal stream and flow data plus wind information to predict where the casualty now was. Overall the exercise worked well to show how difficult each of the aspects of the jobs were but also how the crews could influence the success of their search by forethought and planning.
I finished the day with a tour around the factory to see the Atlantics being made and reconditioned. The Atlantic hulls are made by Souters in Cowes and are of an incredibly high quality and build. The hulls then arrive at the centre to have the tubes, deck, console, fittings and engines added. The fit out is exceptional with almost every item being manufactured on site or as in the case of the engines prepared for their potential inversion if everything goes wrong. Every four years the Atlantics are returned to Cowes for a full rebuild to ensure they are always ready to be there and working should you or I need them.
RNLI Atlantic 75 console
So what was my impression of the training and the centre? Overall, I was hugely impressed, the training was absolutely excellent combining an utterly professional approach with a light heartedness that made the long days pass extremely enjoyably. The crews seemed to really enjoy and benefit from the course and were to a man/woman exceptionally decent people who take great pride in the job they do and the professionalism of their approach. It was good to see at first hand what some of my Offshore membership fee goes towards and I think its fair to say that the training centre and factory is money very well spent. And the disappointment of the two days? - finding out I'd missed appearing on Blue Peter who were coming down to film on the Friday - is that why Glen had his hair done?
Paul Glatzel is an Advanced Powerboat Instructor and runs Powerboat Training UK - www.powerboat-training.co.uk
- 01707 322789
© Copyright Paul Glatzel 2002.
This article was first published in Sportsboat and RIB Magazine.