The men who watch over the waters

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IN high winds and torrential rain, the seven canoeists desperately clung to the hulls of their upturned vessels, praying that rescue would come.

But to the horror of those aboard the South Queensferry inshore lifeboat, in their relief at seeing help cautiously approaching, some of those in the water let go of their canoes and were engulfed by the three metre waves.

"It was difficult because it was so rough and we were trying to see where everybody was in the spray and the rain," recalls volunteer rescuer Greig Wilson.

"We were trying to get as close to them as we could but, as soon as we got near them, some of them let go and they started to sink."

Recalling his training, the 25-year-old knew what he must do. He jumped into the water and one by one the canoeists were brought into the safety of the lifeboat.

"They were suffering from hypothermia but extremely grateful. They even wrote to us afterwards to say so," recalls Greig.

"It's good to know that you've done a job that's made a real difference, that you've saved someone's life."

The work of the volunteers at the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) station, which is based on the Hawes Pier, is at the heart of the South Queensferry community and so for Greig, who grew up in the town, it was only natural that he volunteered his services.

Their efforts are invaluable, and at this time of year the 20-strong team are gearing up for one of their busiest periods as those enjoying a break take to the seas.

Such is the popularity of coastal leisure pursuits, the number of lifeboats launched in Scotland between 24 December and 3 January have risen almost four fold – from five in 1980/81 to 19 over the last festive period.

Indeed, the South Queensferry inshore lifeboat has, in some years, been the busiest in Scotland and, last year, the three watches that work under the eye of operations manager Tom Robertson were involved in 52 searches and helped to rescue 70 people.

"If you think about it, almost everybody apart from services like ours are on holiday over the Christmas and New Year period and, when people have days off, they like to spend time at the coast, boating or diving," explains Tom, a former Merchant Navy seaman. "That's why we always have to be ready, no matter what time of year."

Tom, 66, first volunteered his services to the RNLI back in 1973, when he arrived in the area to work as a sales manager for an Edinburgh printing company.

"Having been at sea myself and seen the vital work lifeboats do, I thought it would be a good idea to volunteer, given my experience," he explains.

"I was very pleased to do it and I must have been involved in approaching 1000 jobs over that length of time."

The work is varied and crews are scrambled to assist sailors who have become injured or who get into difficulty because of a fault with their vessels or due to bad weather.

Walkers who fail to heed the tide tables and end up stranded on Cramond Island are also a common reason for callouts during the year.

One of the most dramatic rescues took place almost seven years ago when a small Shorts 306 aircraft crashed into the Firth of Forth.

Blinded by snow and pummelled by howling high winds, lifeboat helmsman Derek Sutton desperately strained his eyes to see any signs of the stricken plane and its crew.

"It was a force nine gale that was blowing and it was snowing and the crews were out most of the night searching for the two people on board," he recalls.

"The seas were rough and it was whiteout conditions. It was far from great."

Sadly the two people on board the Loganair plane, which suffered engine failure and crashed just off the coast of Granton, died and their bodies were recovered by Navy divers.

On any rescue, speed is of the essence and the South Queensferry crew pride themselves on being able to get underway within eight minutes of being paged.

And, while the crew are on call on a rotational basis, Tom attends the station every time the alert goes out.

He is needed to co-ordinate South Queensferry rescuers' efforts with those of crews from nearby stations.

His watch can be long – some times up to ten hours – but the mild-mannered grandfather, who usually has his faithful dog Saxon by his side, says he takes the job in his stride.

Tom is no stranger to keeping his head and it was really put to the test when he was the helmsman of the South Queensferry inshore lifeboat and was called out to come to the rescue of a fishery protection vessel.

"We launched and the conditions were extremely bad," he recalls. "It was a full gale, force nine, and we as far as Inchcolm when we got hit by a wave that up-ended the boat.

"We landed back down but water had got into the engine. We could deal with that but then we got hit by another wave and that hit the other engine."

While the crew of the fishery protection vessel, called Switha, was airlifted to safety, there was little anyone could do for the three-man crew of the lifeboat who were left drifting near the rocky shores of Inchcolm Island.

"It was four in the morning and dark and no one was anywhere near us," recalls Tom. "But eventually we managed to get back by rigging up a blanket at the end of the boat and the force of the wind meant we were able to sail back to shore."

Tom smiles and shakes his head at the recollection, pointing out that it was possibly the first time anyone had attempted to sail a lifeboat of its type.

"You're not frightened at the time," he adds, when asked what was going through his mind.

"The adrenaline keeps you going and you are basically far too busy looking after yourself. What you are most concerned about is the job in hand and the safety of your crew."


KEEN to make the most of modern technology, the RNLI is planning to replace the South Queensferry station's 7.5 metre lifeboat within the next two years.

A metre longer, the new 135,000 lifeboat will also be more powerful and better equipped – to cope with the rise in the number of call outs.

The RNLI also hopes to build a new rescue centre at the Hawes Pier. The project is currently being considered by planning officials. Raising funds will be the key to its success. As well as the cost of launching the lifeboat, 1000 is needed to train every new volunteer.

&#149 On January 25, the public will be asked to take part in the charity's annual SOS fundraising day. To find out more visit