St Abbs independent lifeboat remains 'heartbeat of the village' almost ten years after RNLI closure

Katharine Hay reports from a community which funded its own lifeboat after the RNLI pulled out

Almost a decade on from having their lifeboat removed, a small fishing village has described the independent vessel they fundraised tirelessly for as “the heartbeat for the village.”

In 2015, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RLNI) removed its lifeboat from the harbour in St Abbs despite thousands signing a petition against the move.

At the time, the charity said it was a “unanimous and final decision” that the boat would be taken away and the village would be serviced by the RNLI crew in Eyemouth, about two nautical miles down the coast.

But, echoing the efforts of Jane Hay, a pioneering feminist and internationally known humanitarian campaigner who campaigned tirelessly to establish a lifeboat in the village in the early 20th century, the St Abbs crew got together to fundraise to have an independent one for their harbour.

With the support of Sir Boyd Tunnock, of Tunnocks Tea Cakes,  a major donor in helping the fundraising effort, St Abbs secured an independent lifeboat, of which there are some 33 crew members servicing it today.

The National Independent Lifeboat Association (NILA), which formed in 2022 to represent independent boats, said about a quarter of lifeboats serving the UK coastline are now independently run.

It’s a figure not widely reported on, but one that reflects a fair proportion of volunteer crews saving lives and keeping communities going around the country.

I met with some of the St Abbs crew while walking in the Borders during Hay’s Way to hear more about how the last decade has been since going independent.

St Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in ScotlandSt Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in Scotland
St Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in Scotland

Mark Wardle, the launch operations manager, said the decision to remove a lifeboat from the harbour “has been proven to have been completely wrong.”

He said the crew’s number of rescue missions reaches double figures each year, highlighting their important role in the community and for visitors to the area.

Most of the “shouts” - the callouts - are medical emergencies, with many of those linked to divers, who regularly visit St Abbs given its reputation for marine research, he said.

“We also get a lot of paddle boarders and people taking part in water activities here, particularly in the height of summer.”

But it is not just the casualties who rely on the lifeboat team.

Several of the crew described the boat and station as the “heartbeat for the village.”

Mr Wardle said St Abbs has a population of about 86 people, of which three quarters are involved in the running of the lifeboat in some shape or form.

“Whether they are boat crew, shore crew, shop crew or just generally helping out with the fundraising, most people here are connected to it in some way,” he said.

“The lifeboat is the heartbeat of the village. It really connects us and unifies us.”

NILA said many of the communities who have decided to go independent have done so because of losing their RNLI lifeboat.

But only if they manage to make up the funds to buy the right kit.

Mr Wardle said the boat alone cost the community about £200,000, of which a major chunk came from Mr Tunnocks.

The boat is named after Mr Tunnocks’ late brother and father, Thomas, as a nod of thanks to the donation.

To keep income coming in, fundraising events are organised, including a gala in St Abbs each year.

Mr Wardle added: “People don’t realise that a quarter of lifeboats in the UK are independent, most think it’s all RLNI.

“But RLNI is a big charity that can afford advertising so they have big campaigns to promote themselves.

“It does mean people don’t realise how many independents there are.”

St Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in ScotlandSt Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in Scotland
St Abbs Independent Life Boat station is one of many independent life boats in Scotland

Barry Shaw, secretary of St Abbs Lifeboat, said the crew is in discussions with NILA on how to raise the profile of independent lifeboats across the UK.

“Because we’re independent, through the coastguard we don’t get the same recognition as RLNI when it comes to call-outs,” he said.

“It’s a barrier for independents, including us.

“I think there were four call outs last year that we didn’t get called to, but one was a boat that was drifting to the rocks right by the harbour here.”

Another challenge for the independent crews is recruitment.

NILA chairman Neil Dalton, who was the founder of the Dornoch independent lifeboat in Sutherland in 1982, said he has noticed a decline in younger generations signing up.

“We are about to start a recruitment drive for our station because we’ve lost three crew members who have moved away, but young people don’t seem to have the same sense of responsibility for this sort of thing,” he said.

Last month, Mr Dalton called on MPs at Westminster to lobby for the reintroduction of the Department for Transport (DFT) Rescue Boat Grant Fund.

At the time he said it has been “historically difficult to make the general public understand that not all lifeboat facilities around the UK are provided by the RNLI, despite many of our member organisations having been in existence for hundreds of years.”

In response to the push back against RLNI removing some lifeboats from stations around the UK, including St Abbs, a spokesperson for the charity said: “The RNLI has been saving lives at sea for 200 years.

“During this time, we have developed a fleet of lifeboats best suited to the coastline of the UK and Ireland. We too have adapted our service to meet the changing demands of sea users.”

RNLI has 238 lifeboat stations across the UK.

NILA said it believes there are about 50 independent ones and of those, about 38 of the stations are members.

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