Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

There's many who owe their lives to Portrush Lifeboat Operations Manager Robin Cardwell - 'for those lost at sea, he's a beacon of light and hope'


Ivan Little

Portrush Lifeboat Operations Manager Robin Cardwell is preparing to retire. Here he reflects on his experience and the rescues that stick with him.

He's a man of the sea who never blows his own trumpet - or even his ship's horn - but there's a justifiably deep, if understated, sense of pride as Robin Cardwell looks back over his 27-year association with the Portrush lifeboat and remembers the rescues that he and his brave colleagues risked their lives to carry out.

As Robin prepares to retire at the age of 70 as Lifeboat Operations Manager, he singles out a hair-raising operation that saved a family of four from almost certain death near the Giant's Causeway as the one that gives him most satisfaction.

But one bizarre rescue as Robin was earning his stripes in the sometimes perilous waters around Portrush didn't go quite according to the textbook plan.

And that's because there was no text-book plan on how to save … a zebra.

"The circus was in town," says Robin. "The zebra escaped and somehow got into the water off the west strand and was seen swimming out past the harbour mouth."

The emergency services didn't think the zebra would make the crossing and the lifeboat was launched.

And while the crew were able to get hold of the terrified and exhausted zebra, it died shortly afterwards, apparently from a heart attack.

The lifeboat was also sent out once to rescue two dogs after the Coastguard feared the owner was about to go into the sea to attempt to save them herself.

"Dog rescue acts aren't something we normally do," says Robin. "But because of concerns for the woman, we did go out and we rescued her dogs."

But this doggy tale didn't have a happy ending. "A couple of months later the two dogs took off into the sea again, this time in foggy conditions, and were never seen again," says Robin, whose very first call-out as a Portrush crew member was to investigate the sighting of an upturned boat in the Foyle, which wasn't quite what it seemed.

"When we got there we realised it was a seal sitting on top of a half-submerged rock. Another time, there were reports that a helicopter had crashed onto a beach. But that turned out to be a stranded whale.

"Those were genuine mistakes and the calls were made with good intentions but sometimes people are responsible for hoaxes which waste everyone's time and cause unnecessary distress.

"I remember one man who was caught at the harbour said he made a hoax call because he wanted to see the lifeboat going out to sea."

However, Robin's first job as Portrush coxswain - the skipper who steers the boat - was all-too-real, a baptism of fire that almost ended in disaster.

Robin had only been in the role for a few days when a report came in that a boat was in trouble off the Giant's Causeway.

He says: "There were four people on board, two adults and two children. They hadn't a clue about what they were doing. The boat was rotten, they only had two lifejackets and the anchor was only on 10 feet of rope.

"The wind was coming out of the north-west and taking the family on to the rocks past the Causeway stones.

"If we had been five minutes later the family would have been on the rocks but we got a rope onto the boat and pulled it out to deeper water and towed it back to Portrush.

"To me that was my best rescue - because we saved four lives," says Robin.

But the inexperience of the family - and others who go to sea with little or no knowledge about the potential hazards - has made Robin convinced that more regulations are needed to protect amateur sailors from themselves.

"Sooner or later the authorities are going to have to bring in tests. If you are a commercial operator, you have to meet all kinds of requirements, but people who go out for pleasure don't.

"I think there should be a licence, similar to the driving licence for motorists. People should have to know something about the sea before they go out on it. In France, that's the way it is. Everybody has to be qualified before they're allowed out on a boat."

Alas, not even lifeboats are exempt from accidents. One of the most harrowing times for Robin was the loss of the Portrush lifeboat, the £2m Severn class, Katie Hannan, after it became stranded on rocks in bad conditions on Rathlin Island harbour in 2008 when it was responding to a call-out to rescue three people on a boat.

Robin was monitoring the operation from the RNLI boathouse in Portrush that night and went to Rathlin the following morning to assess the situation and the damage.

"Several attempts were made to pull the lifeboat clear but the weather turned even worse and she was pushed along the rocks. In the end they had to scrap her and get a new one, the William Gordon Burr, another Severn class vessel."

Robin recalls another particularly nasty call-out to Rathlin when the Portrush lifeboat was despatched to bring a man who'd been accidentally shot in the ear to hospital in Ballycastle.

"They couldn't get a helicopter out to the island because of the 80mph winds. The seas were treacherous but we reached the wounded man and his friend.

"But the physical injuries weren't their only worries - they were really sick before we got to Ballycastle.

"However, we weren't able to return to Portrush and had to spend the night in Greencastle in Donegal. We can always get out of the harbour in Portrush no matter the weather but we can't always get back in."

In recent years, a sadly re-occurring call-out for the lifeboat has been to recover the bodies of people who've taken their own lives, or to rescue others who have attempted suicide.

But Robin downplays the risks run by lifeboat crews, though he admires the volunteers' courage and commitment, especially on call-outs which have been known to last up to 23 hours.

"You're looked after well with all the best possible equipment on the lifeboats but it still takes a special type of person to volunteer and we have some of the best people up here," says Robin, who's originally from Coleraine but moved to Portrush after he re-married following the death of his first wife from leukaemia at the age of 38.

He'd been an engineering teacher for 30 years but he also had a fishing boat, running trips for anglers, which gave him an insight into the tricky tides around the north coast.

In 1990, Robin was approached to see if he would be interested in becoming a volunteer with the Portrush lifeboat and turned up to 'answer a few questions' about himself. Initially, it didn't all go swimmingly. For the first question they asked Robin if he could swim 100 yards with his clothes on.

"I replied that I couldn't swim 10 yards with them off. I said to them that I thought they gave you a boat," laughs Robin, who still can't swim to this day, but he insists he has no fear of the water.

As part of his training, however, Robin went in at the deep end, literally, to undertake a sea survival course in England.

"I had to jump off a 14-foot high diving board into the water and the boys before me were going in and holding their breath for three seconds.

"I didn't know if I could do that and I asked the instructor if I could inflate my life jacket, but he told me that I would break my neck once I hit the water.

"I managed the jump alright but the next part of the course was going into a pool with a wave-machine and simulated thunder and lightning to see if I could get into a life raft. For someone who can't swim, it was a big ask, but I did it."

Robin has tried to learn to swim but he says: "I couldn't do it. I don't like my head going below the water. However, on the lifeboat, you don't really need to be a swimmer. When you go out in the boat you're wearing a lifejacket."

Robin started his career with the lifeboat as a crewman and was an emergency mechanic for a few years before becoming the deputy head coxswain and then coxswain.

He had to retire at the age of 55 though nowadays coxswains can stay on until they're 65.

But Robin's skills weren't lost to the RNLI. He was appointed as the deputy launching authority for the lifeboat before taking on the role of the Operations Manager 10 years ago.

"That has involved the day-to-day running of the station here in Portrush where the main task along with all the paperwork is liaising with the Coastguard who will page me or ring me if there's an emergency.

"It's then decided which of our two boats we will send to answer the call - the inshore vessel which goes to the aid of people nearer Portrush, like surfers, and the all-weather one which covers a 50-mile area from Malin Head in Donegal to Rathlin Island.

"Many people think the Coastguard and the lifeboats are the same outfit. But we're a charity and they're government-funded."

The average number of call-outs for the lifeboat is around 40 a year and there are currently 23 volunteers who all have pagers, standing by to respond to calls.

Most of the crew members are in full-time employment, mainly in the Portrush area, so day-time call-outs can be problematical with seven currently the maximum number of volunteers needed for the all-weather lifeboat.

"We're always on the lookout for new recruits," says Robin. "But they have to be local. We've had interest shown from people who live in Ballymena but that's a wee bit too far away. Speed is of the essence. We can't afford to wait."

Robin says he'll miss his life with the lifeboat but adds that he's made a lot of good friends.

He's also steered the lifeboat in new directions with a restructuring programme within the RNLI and the introduction of a new training strategy.

He's also been involved in fundraising campaigns like the famous raft race in Portrush to get much needed money for the RNLI, who have 244 lifeboats throughout the British Isles plus 100 relief vessels waiting in the wings.

"It takes over a million pounds every three days to run the RNLI operation," says Robin who, even though he's retiring, won't be saying farewell to the sea.

"I've got a wee Armour boat which I'll use for recreation and maybe take the odd trip over to Islay in Scotland and do a wee bit of fishing, too."

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph