Portrait of St Abbs - a community which refused to let its lifeboat service die

Phil Rutherford, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat Crew PIC: Steve Cox
Phil Rutherford, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat Crew PIC: Steve Cox
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Last October, photographer Steve Cox took a trip on the new St Abbs lifeboat in exactly the kind of stormy, unpredictable conditions that lifeboats are designed for. “As I was driving there I was looking out to sea and thinking ‘Hmm, there’s a lot of swell and chop,’” he remembers. “Then when I got to the harbour and looked out to sea again I just thought ‘Oh my God.’”

Cox estimates the swell that day was in the 10-12 foot range. As he was only there to take pictures, and as there was no urgent deadline looming, he assumed that the lifeboat operations manager Alistair Crowe would tell him to go away and come back on a calmer day, but before he knew it he was pulling on a state-of-the art survival suit and climbing aboard the recently-christened Thomas Tunnock, helmed that day by Alistair’s son Graeme.

Keith Hood, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat crew. PIC: Steve Cox

Keith Hood, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat crew. PIC: Steve Cox

“As soon as we passed the harbour wall we immediately hit the waves,” says Cox, “and I thought ‘this is where I discover whether I’m going to overcome my seasickness or not.’”

“The boat was just flying – it was just taking off over the waves. My problem is I’ve got short legs – you straddle the sides of this boat and there are straps on the floor for your feet. I could barely get my toes in the straps, so every time we landed I would bounce up and almost fly away. I was trying to hold onto my camera with one hand and the bar at the front of the seat with the other. It was like being on a bucking bronco.”

Cox was undertaking this aquatic rodeo as part of a project to document the lifeboat and its crew funded by Boyd Tunnock of Tunnock’s Teacakes fame, who put a substantial sum towards the purchase of the boat. The resulting book, St Abbs Lifeboat – The Crew, is now available from the lifeboat station website, with all proceeds going towards the maintenance and running costs of the boat.

There has been a lifeboat in St Abbs since 1911 – as Cox puts it, “it’s the heart and soul of the community down there” – but in 2015 the RNLI announced that it would be closing its St Abbs station and removing its B Class (Atlantic 75) boat. When a high-profile campaign to reverse this decision failed, the local community set out to raise funds to buy a replacement. They had already hit the £50,000 mark when Tunnock added a further £250,000, enabling them to buy a 900w Rigid Inflatable Boat from Marine Specialised Technology in Liverpool. Named after Tunnock’s late brother and grandfather, it is nine metres long, has a maximum speed of 40 knots and a range of 173 miles. The official launch took place in September 2016, with both Tunnock and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in attendance.

Davie Wilson, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat crew. PIC: Steve Cox

Davie Wilson, fisherman and member of the St Abbs Lifeboat crew. PIC: Steve Cox

As its name suggests, however, the book is really about the men who crew the boat rather than the boat itself. Now freelance, Cox (no relation) worked for many years as a staff photographer with the Sunday Herald in Glasgow, and his experience at putting people at their ease is evident in a series of atmospheric black and white portraits. Some of the photographs show the men in a nautical setting, but not all – Cox was keen to show that many of them have lives away from the harbour, so there are shots of deputy launching authority Jim Wilson with his racing pigeons and lifeboat crew member Phil Rutherford out looking for treasure with his metal detector.

Most of the images in the book are in black and white but a few of the shots taken out in the water are in colour, and there’s a striking contrast between the bright orange of the boat’s hull and the moody monochrome elsewhere.

Cox has surfed on the east coast of Scotland for many years now (full disclosure: I’ve been surfing with him for over a decade) and he’s probably clocked up more hours in the water than most. However, his trip aboard the Thomas Tunnock still threw up a few surprises:

“Alistair said he’d take us round to Pettico Wick where it would be a bit more sheltered,” says Cox, “and the sea did mellow off a little bit – enough for us to slow down and stop and do a couple of practice lifesaving drills. Then they said ‘right, it’s your turn to go over,’ so I jumped off, and then Alistair said ‘right, see ya!’ and went off round the corner and just left me there.

Jim Wilson, deputy launching authority, St Abbs Lifeboat PIC: Steve Cox

Jim Wilson, deputy launching authority, St Abbs Lifeboat PIC: Steve Cox

“Anyway, they eventually reappeared and hoisted me back on board and we shot back to the harbour. I really was feeling sick at this point – I was green – so Alistair and the others had a good giggle when I got back.” n

To order a copy of St Abbs Lifeboat – The Crew, click here or email contact@stabbslifeboat.org.uk