Lifeboat crew friends clock up two centuries of service between them
- Credit: Archant
With an incredible 214 years of service to the RNLI between them, four Sheringham lifeboat crew members have been hailed by the charity for their devotion to serving their community.
KAREN BETHELL spoke to the friends about the highs - and the lows - of life on board a lifeboat.
Growing up in a town with an RNLI history stretching back to the late 1860s and a fishing tradition dating back centuries, for Chris Ayers, signing up as a lifeboat crew member was an easy decision.
However, aged just 15 in 1957, the apprentice electrician was forced to stay on shore.
"I wasn't really allowed to do anything until I was 16," he remembers. "And, although none of us did it for the money, I was proud when I got half a crown for my first launch."
Mr Ayers, 78, was eventually made assistant winchman, later taking on jobs including all-weather crew, emergency mechanic and tractor driver.
At the age of 19, he joined the celebrations when the Foresters' Centenary lifeboat was replaced by the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows, which went on to serve the town for nearly 30 years.
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Like Mr Ayers, retired fisherman Trevor Holsey, who trained as a crew member in 1961, served on the 37ft boat with local legend Henry "Joyful" West, who was hailed a hero for rescuing a woman from a fire-stricken fishing boat and was a awarded a British Empire Medal for his 21 years' service as coxswain.
Although, in its heyday, the £28,500 lifeboat was considered a modern wonder, for crew members, being cold and wet was considered part of the job.
"The only thing we had to keep us warm in those days was a nip of brandy and a bar of chocolate," former second coxswain Mr Holsey, 76, said. "And when I first joined, there was no back chat - if you did something wrong one of the old boys would give you a clip round the ear."
Before the advent of modern technology and "health and safety", Mr Holsey remembered, crew members shared kit and, after responding to a 'shout', often found themselves stepping into wet boots.
Deputy Launching Authority David Mann, who joined as shore crew aged 17 in 1969, and went on to serve as crew and second mechanic, said that nowadays, warm kit and advances in boat design made life on the lifeboat much more comfortable.
"I think one of the biggest changes is that we've got radar and, where before you were relying on a compass and a watch to estimate the speed of a boat, we've now got VHFDF [very high frequency direction finder].
In 1975, Mr Mann, Mr Ayers and Mr Holsey were joined at Sheringham lifeboat station by former Cromer crew member Clive Rayment, who, after a stint as second cox, took over as coxwain when his predecessor Brian Pegg retired in 1989.
The four friends went on to respond to dozens of 'shouts' together, ranging from stricken boats and stranded swimmers, to comic incidents including the mysterious case of 'Potato Pete'.
"We communicated with the Coastguard on a wind-up telephone in those days and we got a call saying someone had been seen out at sea waving in distress," Mr Rayment, 72, explained. "But, when we got there, we discovered it was an inflatable figure advertising potatoes and, as the wind blew, it was rolling over with its arm coming out of the water."
Other, more serious, calls included the dramatic rescue in 1980 of two brothers whose boat had sunk off East Runton - for which Mr Rayment was awarded a bronze medal for gallantry by the RNLI - and the recovery of the body of a man which had been washed up at Weybourne after he had been swept out to sea at Skegness a month earlier.
"It was very sad, but we had a lovely letter from his wife thanking us and it was nice to know that she had been able to say goodbye to her husband and bury him," Mr Rayment said.
In 1992, Sheringham's last all-weather lifeboat, the Lloyds II, was retired from service, to be replaced by the Atlantic 75 inshore boat, marking the end of an era and leading to a bitter-sweet farewell for the four long-serving crew members.
Mr Holsey, who retired as a deputy launching authority last year, said steering the boat on its final journey was heart-wrenching, while Mr Rayment said he felt a "great sense of loss".
Mr Ayers said: "We are like a famiy and climbing up the ladder on the day we finished, it hit you - we were gutted."
Although by then above the age limit for crew, Mr Ayers, Mr Holsey and Mr Mann continued to support the lifeboat in shore roles, with Mr Rayment joining them as a deputy launching authority after he retired in 1995.
"I think the reason we carried on is that when you've made a commitment lasting such a long time, it is part of your life and the RNLI is an incredilbly worthwhile service to belong to," Mr Rayment said.