The Lifeboatman’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Lifeboatman’s Tale

by Douggie Douglas

I was a fisherman all my working life and fishermen were also lifeboatmen, so for 34 years I served on three lifeboats and for the last 21 years I was the coxswain. I retired in 1992. The proper name for our boat was the ‘North Sunderland Lifeboat’ but the name was changed to the ‘Seahouses Lifeboat’ because someone thought that fishermen might get ‘Sunderland’ (in County Durham) confused with ‘North Sunderland’ (in Northumberland). Well, I ask you!

Our fishing boat, the Kindly Light, was a type of keel boat known as a ‘mule’. It was called this because it was a cross between a coble (at the front end) and a yawl (at the rear end). We mainly fished for crabs and lobsters but in the summer we used another boat, a coble called Endeavour, to go salmon fishing. This part of our job could cause problems.

In the first place, Scottish landowners sometimes accused us of catching ‘Scottish’ salmon that had come originally from Scotland’s rivers. We always claimed that this was, you might say, a load of ‘codswallop’ and we maintained that the fish we caught had been released from Northumberland’s rivers. Then there were occasional arguments with the bailiffs. They could challenge us if they thought we were breaking the law. We did, of course, have an official licence to catch salmon but we could be fined if we over-fished or fished out of the permitted season. This used to last from 26th March to the last day in August.

In my days all the volunteer lifeboatmen were fishermen. We had six or seven men in our crew – no women of course – and, being fishermen, we were never bothered with being seasick. Sometimes when the lifeboat was called out, the regular crew were themselves all out fishing. This meant a scratch crew had to be called out but these were all experienced former lifeboatmen who had retired. We always had enough men to call on and I’m glad to say that we never lost a single man.

Looking back, our first two boats were very basic – almost primitive you could say and in the early days you just used a watch and compass for navigation! Even the second boat we used didn’t have radar (even though our own fishing vessels did) until the Ladies’ Guild raised enough money to buy the equipment. Modern boats are far better equipped and the lifeboat crew all safely enclosed. But these boats are obviously very expensive.

Of course we had no official instruction but today the RNLI takes men (and women!) down to Poole in Dorset for training, although I reckon ‘You’ll never make a lifeboatman at Poole’.

When I was a volunteer, most of the distress calls we received were from other fishing boats or from coasters that had run into trouble. Nowadays, a good many calls are from people trying to cross the causeway to Holy Island and being cut off by the rapidly rising tide.

I can remember very clearly the worst case we had to tackle. We were called out at lunchtime on the Saturday to help a fishing boat but we didn’t get back until teatime on the following Monday. This was because the sea swell was too high for us to get back safely into Seahouses harbour.

Saturday night was terrible. Then on the Sunday a helicopter came from Acklington (the RAF station that is now at Boulmer) and lifted the men off both the fishing boat and our lifeboat and took us to Inner Farne Island. Here we sheltered in the cottage by the lighthouse, got the fire going (you can imagine how drenched we had got since leaving the mainland) and gradually we dried out. Meanwhile we had had to leave the two boats at anchor off the Inner Farne.

On Monday the helicopter returned and lifted some of us back to each of the boats. We had been fortunate; that same Saturday was the night that the Seaham lifeboat, a short way down the coast, had gone down with all its crew perishing.

Just before I retired, I got a letter from the Queen.

‘Congratulations!’ cried my wife, ‘what does it say?’

‘I’m getting a medal,’ I replied.

‘What for?’ she asked.

‘I’m not sure – the only thing I was ever good at was poaching salmon.’

Douggie Douglas
Douggie Douglas

Editor: Douggie did get his medal. It was ‘For services to the RNLI’ and the word ‘salmon’ appears nowhere in the citation.