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My Life: RNLI volunteer

JP Trenque explains why he volunteers with the RNLI 

I have been a keen scuba diver for more than 30 years now. Originally from France, I moved to London in 1994 and discovered the wonders of the British shoreline from a different angle – beneath the waves. Once, as I was standing by the slipway in Newhaven waiting to board a dive boat, I can remember hearing the sound of maroons. Suddenly, a number of people started running to the lifeboat station and in a matter of minutes the lifeboat was under way. Ordinary people going about their daily lives had dropped everything to go to sea and assist someone in trouble out there.

Soon afterwards, I took a membership to the RNLI; my meagre contribution to what I thought was a very worthy cause. One day, the Lifeboat magazine announced that four new stations were to be set-up on the Thames. Volunteers were sought in Gravesend, Central London, Chiswick and also Teddington where I lived. There was going to be a lifeboat station less than a mile from home. I could already see myself clad in yellow foul-weather gear, standing at the bow of a mighty RNLI ship as it slid down a ramp and hit the water with a big splash. Of course I applied to become a crewmember.

Suddenly, I could save lives – I could make a difference. And let’s face it, the toys I would get to play with sounded rather fun and the uniform looked kind of cool…

So in October 2001 I joined a group of enthusiasts who started training every evening to become the Teddington Lifeboat crew. Other than becoming competent in handling the ‘D-Class’, a 5m inflatable boat powered with a 40hp outboard engine, we had to become familiar with the launching tractor and its trailer, and the equipment carried on board – from the radios (and radio transmissions protocol) to the first-aid, oxygen and entonox kits. Local knowledge of our eight-mile stretch of the river also became paramount.

Just a couple of months later, on 2 January 2002, the four Thames stations were officially launched. Members of the public could dial 999 and ask to speak to the coastguard to report an incident on the river. The London coastguard watch manager would then set off our pagers. Within four minutes, the crew would muster, get changed into their gear and launch the boat. Our aim was to reach any point between Richmond-upon-Thames and Hampton Court within 15 minutes of being paged.

Working in central London meant that my RNLI shifts mainly covered from evenings to early mornings. Being woken up at 4am by a screaming pager got the adrenaline pumping hard in a fraction of a second and certainly took some getting used to. Within a few minutes, we would be heading flat out on the water to tend to a boat adrift, a drunken swimmer or, sadly too often, a person threatening to jump off a bridge to end it all. If one person ever changed his or her mind about jumping after seeing the lifeboat arrive on scene, then all the training and all the nights and weekends on call will have been worthwhile.

A few months after joining the Teddington crew, I also joined the crew of Tower Lifeboat in central London which, with around 500 call-outs every year, is the busiest RNLI station in the UK. Because of its location, Tower doesn’t operate on a pager system but is manned 24/7 by crew on 12-hour shifts.

I didn’t mind going on a ‘shout’ in the middle of the night. None of us did, whether it was for a false alert or a life was saved. Returning to the station after the job as the day broke on a flat calm river with a slight mist was a serene experience. I would then jump in the shower back home and head out into town for my day job.

Standing on an overcrowded tube train at rush hour knowing that my actions had made a difference gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction. I remember one February evening being called to help an unfortunate South American tourist who leant over the wall on the riverside to take pictures of the London Eye and slipped. She can’t have spent more than a few minutes in the water but her body temperature dropped from a normal 37ºC to a life-threatening 32ºC. There is no doubt in my mind that we saved her life that evening.

Having recently moved away from Teddington, I unfortunately had to leave the crew there. But I still volunteer to do occasional night shift after work with Tower Lifeboat. After ten years as a lifeboatman, the initial excitement is still there, mixed with a great sense of achievement.

• To find out more about the work of the RNLI or to make a donation go to www.rnli.org.uk

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