December 1, 2023

Isle of Wight Observer News

The Island's favourite newspaper

VECTIS VIEW: Mark Birch – Coxswain of Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboats

3 min read

Mark Birch (right) meets HRH Prince Michael of Kent

This has been a very proud week for the crew of Sandown & Shanklin Independent Lifeboat, as we’ve received the King’s Award for Voluntary Service. However, like many people on the Island, we are still dealing with the aftermath of Storm Ciaran, which badly damaged our headquarters on the Revetment, as well as the on-going threat of cliff-falls.

As an Islander, I’m privileged to have led the 25-person crew (alongside countless volunteers, trustees and fundraisers) for more than 30 years. We are responsible for the area between Bembridge Ledge to St Catherine’s Point, and sometimes beyond, responding to around 40 emergency call-outs every year.

Like the other voluntary lifeboat organisations on the Island, such as at Freshwater and Ryde (we are 3 of 55 in the country), we have to fund-raise for our boats (currently Dove II), all training, and all equipment, including a tractor stored at our base, and we are grateful for the generous support of the public.

Historically, Dove I was funded by Sunday School teachers concerned about the loss of life with the sinking of HMS Eurydice, launched on June 29, 1868. Eurydice was a fast 26-gun frigate, which was located in the Bay in 1885, then served along the south coast until she sank on November 5, 1916, with memorials at Christ Church and Shanklin Cemetery.

The current service was reformed 50 years ago in the 1970s, and we can be seen at community events, including local regattas, the annual ‘pier to pier’ swim and Christmas and New Year fundraising ‘dips’, alongside our emergency roles.

As volunteers, we all juggle our day jobs with an on-call rota, aiming to be in the sea within six minutes of a call, with a minimum crew of three on board and other members of the team at base. Increasingly we are mindful of the ever-growing training needs of all members, future-proofing our leadership team, and ensuring support for those involved in serious incidents.

Over the years, including during the Covid pandemic, we have been called to incidents at the base of Culver Cliff, when access can only be achieved by sea, and potential loss of life is a factor when we respond to a call. Although not everyday occurrences, all crew members have to be prepared, with only minutes notice to leave their ‘day-job’ and become an emergency responder, often in turbulent and hostile waters, to rescue someone at risk of drowning or injury.

Often naive walkers get in trouble at Luccombe or Yaverland, and we are called out to help, working with other emergency services. Sometimes it’s vessels in the Bay not knowing about the local coastal conditions. We often respond without knowing the full circumstances until we are in the water so we get to the scene as fast as possible.

Crew members are regularly recognised, nationally, by the award of Royal Life Saving long-service awards, as well as locally by councils, such as Sandown Town Council, and partner agencies, such as the Sandown Lifeguards, who help support our operation and allow us to get on with our jobs.

Like any organisation, especially those on the Island, the King’s Award for Voluntary Service, and previously the Queen’s Award, does highlight the standard of service we all provide and demonstrates that the Island punches above its weight, benefitting residents and visitors alike.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our nomination, supported the operation of the service, and most importantly, to each and every one of the present, and past crews, that I have had the privilege to have been a member of, and now lead. This award recognises the difference, often vital, that we make.

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