Coxswain assessment day

The big day finally came, after thirteen years on the boat and something like four or five years working through the coxswain plan, today was the day of my final Coxswain Pass-Out assessment.  We were scheduled for a 3pm launch and with staff in place so I could get away from work everything seemed to be going to plan. Even the weather was on my side. A strong nor-westerly had blown through overnight but today was sunny and the wind had dropped to around 12 knots.


I arrived at work around 9.30 that morning and took my usual glace across the bay and harbour.  Something was out of place. “Who has tied my boat up there?” I wondered. Our Wayfarer sailing dinghy had been left tied up on its running mooring last night.  Now it was alongside the harbour wall, high and dry, berthed just behind a fishing boat and a dory. I headed straight for the harbour and upon closer investigation realised that no-one has tied my boat up there.  My boat has parked itself there. The mooring line hard parted company in the strong blow overnight, but she still had her stern line on. The wind and waves had pushed the bow around the corner and by some miracle she had settled as if berthed deliberately, two feet from the wall, two feet from the fishing boat and two feet from the propellor of the dory…. Not a scratch on anything! I feel I may have already used up all of today’s luck in one go.


At this point the tide is still ebbing.  I quickly realise that this boat is going to float, conveniently, at 3pm.  Like all big days, there is always a hitch. In many ways this was a blessing, instead of spending the morning fretting about the impending assessment, I am now rigging new mooring lines and fretting about whether I’ll actually get there on time.


At 2pm I’m still watching the tide inching closer and closer with every tiny wave, we are now two hours before high water, with only a couple of feet of sand between the sea and the boat.  At around ten past we make our move, grabbing the three lads from the shop to help, we were about to go paddling. The water is round the hull now and we only need a couple of inches to float her in, with the help of inherent buoyancy and us breaking the boat free of the sand’s suction we are away, the boat is back on its proper mooring and I am heading for the lifeboat station.


It is 2.45 when I arrive there and already there are plenty of crew assembled in the crew room.  There is a written paper waiting for me, so I make a start. Realising I won’t finish it before 3pm and not wanting to hold the crew up I decide to finish later and get on the with exercise.  The plan is to drop the dead Fred man-overboard dummy off, drive away and go through anchoring and some drills then go back and find Fred on the way home, exercise duration an hour and half.


Dropping Fred off was the easy bit, wind and tide calculations for his likely drift were fairly straightforward and we had a good idea of where we expected to find him.  Into a nearby bay, I’m just about to brief the deck crew on anchoring, when all of a sudden we’ve got alarms going off, the mechanic having a minor flap and asking if we stop engines.  Ah! We are having a fire drill… first job is to clear the nav desk and following the emergency instructions card. “Can we stop engines?” asks the mechanic again, “Ask Coxswain’s permission to stop engines” is the next step on the card too.  “Dammit, I’m the Coxswain, make a decision” I’m thinking, I feel the pressure of the whole crew staring at me. The wind is blowing offshore so we are going to drift out. In my mind as a sailor that is a good thing. “Stop engines and drop anchor” was my quick, and probably not so well thought through choice.  Wind offshore, yes… but tide, tide is taking us toward rocks. The likelihood is that it will sweep us past them, but it is a close call and the super slick work of the deck team pretty much saved the day at that point. We are anchored and holding at a safe enough distance from the rocks. Note to self…. Next time the boat is burning, run it up the nearest beach, then stop engines and get off onto land and run away.


Drill complete and we are waiting for our glacial speed capstan winch to creep the anchor chain back on board.  I’m on the flybridge when I hear the Coastguard calling us, “We have a tasking for you”. Our mechanic is talking to them in the wheelhouse, so I am only hearing the Coastguard side of the conversation. There is an 18ft powerboat broken down at our harbour, it is drifting out.  The vessel has no VHF “but we have a phone number for him”. Unfortunately, now I am not privy to any direct communication with the casualty, making it difficult for me to ask questions, work out exactly where they are and what is going on.


My first thought is that the ILB will be there quicker than we will be, we ask the Coastguard to task our ILB.  Then someone looks around at the crew we have on board. It appears that we have all the likely available ILB helms here, we are going to have to respond.  Clink clink clink the anchor chain is still crawling onto the deck. Fred will be left until later.


With the anchor finally stowed we are on our way to the last reported position of the casualty.  Now that we are on a shout, I’m not sure that I’m Coxswain any more. One of our actual Coxswains was on the flybridge with me “Is this your boat now?” I ask him.  “Yes, but I’m just going to stand here” he replied. I’m still a little confused, but I think it is my boat. I’d only done a towing assessment with the same Assessor a couple of days ago, so here we go again.


A local dive boat calls us on the VHF.  He has the casualty in tow and wants to hand it over to us.  We find them a fair old way out of the harbour, three people on board.  The dive boat drops the tow and we pick it up. Next up there is a yacht race just started, I suspect they will be heading our way.  I elect to tow our charge around the outside of the race marks, just to be sure.


Back in the harbour and we pick up our mooring.  A couple of crew hop into the boarding boat and tow the 18ft boat and put it alongside the wall in the harbour.  Job done and all back aboard our boat. Now we are back to find Fred who had now been at sea for getting on three hours.


The small search area is gone, the simple search patterns are out of the window and now we are settling in to a long parallel track search with a big down tide element to it.  I look at the tidal streams and Fred drift start point again. He’s gone that way for one hour, then this way for two hours and he’s going this way more quickly now, this gives me a rough idea of the westing.   I look at the estimated position our navigator has come up with. I’m pretty sure the wind factor has been underestimated. We arrive at our drift start position but I think we need to be further south.

It was really fortunate that exactly at this point a crew member spotted something around half a mile south of us.  Upon closer investigation our “something” was a gannet. But is was a handy gannet, I’m now in the spot where I want to start my search pattern from.  After some discussion with the navigator about the merits of using the human brain over the computer brain, we have a search plan and we are making way, heading west at 20 knots.  We have a pretty large area to cover, even at this speed it is going to take a while. We shave some time off the search shortening the first leg by half and making yet more south on the next leg before heading back east again.  


We keep running our track, we have the perfect search conditions, bright sunshine, flat water and able to see a gannet at half a mile!  But there is no sign of Fred. I am pretty sure that we are too far north still, but I’m confident he is in the box we are searching. We just have to sit it out and keep going.  We will catch up with him eventually.


Much to the relief of everyone on board, we run a few more legs and the Assessor decides we can switch the DF on, go get Fred and go home.  To avoid the risk and embarrassment of losing Fred we attach a direction finding beacon to him before chucking him over the side. Now all we have to do is tune our direction finding equipment to his channel and follow the light….


We tune in and start moving, the DF is taking us south west…. It feels like a very long way south west!  Now I’m wondering if my search area has gone far enough. Ages pass but finally there is a shout, he’s there on the bow.  I look at the chartplotter, we are in my search area, we would have found him had we continued. Man overboard recovery completed and we are heading for home, four hours later!  Phew.


I look at where we are, it’s a familiar view from hours spent in the wheelhouse on a scalloper.  I hear that skipper in my head “Christ gal! Aim her over there out here in this tide”. So I did and brought us straight line to the harbour wall, no need for satnav.  We finally get back to our mooring.


Now for the debrief of the afternoon’s events.  We were all standing on the aft deck of the lifeboat.  Three of us were being assessed that day and now the announcements were made.  Our Assessor was satisfied that our boat now has a new mechanic, navigator and coxswain.  I stood on the flybridge putting the cover on. For years I helped my Dad, the boat’s full-time Coxswain, to put this cover on at the end of a trip.  He retired from the boat a couple of years ago. I smiled to myself alone in my thoughts of “I am Dad now”. Except of course that I am his daughter and now the first female coxswain on our island and only the fourth in the whole Institution.



Saved by the pager

1819 Launch ILB, I was just about to do the dishes, oh well!  Into the car and down to the Station. Given the time of day and that it’s an ILB only page, I don’t anticipate making it on the shout, I live too far away.  


There are a good few cars at the boat house already.  I jog in asking “have you got enough” “yes” is the answer.  The shout is to a 30ft yacht which has gone aground on the rocks in the harbour.  The tide is rising, but the wind has her pinned on an unmarked reef on an lee shore.  “You might as well get dressed” the helm said to me, “it’s in the harbour, we can take four, one of us might need to go on aboard”.  Aaaaah, I need this. I’ve had one of those days, a knock down and you lose your sense of direction, kind of days. Putting my drysuit, my thoughts are grounded again.  Our LOM or ALB coxswain, I can’t remember which, did a crew count as we went “Four good strong hands there, good oh”. Sometimes the smallest of sentences make the biggest of differences.


We push the ILB down the slipway and off the trailer, there are four helms aboard, so the operation is pretty slick, one is already on the VHF to the coastguard, “jump in and start her” I’m told…. “Ok then… I think…..” Engine down, astern gear in as the lads jump in keeping us off the same lee shore we’re headed for just round the corner.  I am home where I belong.


All aboard, I spin her round and we’re away.  Assessing the situation, the general consensus is to hold her off and let the tide rise.  I take us alongside, close to her keel, thinking if she’s sat there then we’re good here, I know the reef is pretty flat.  We spent many a moment as kids in Oppies stuck and wading around that very spot in these conditions.


We have a chat with the skipper.  The boat is at present anchored at her bow.  We suggest transferring his anchor into the ILB so we can set it for him upwind and he can kedge himself off as the tide rises.  We’re at around mid range, so the rise is quick enough. He has 30m of chain and then rope. We get all the chain on board before I reverse us out slowly while he makes off the warp on the bow paying out the slack to us.  Gradually some load comes on, we run out of warp and start paying out the chain. All of a sudden “pop” she’s away….


And now heading straight for us at full speed.  Now, I am well used to my tows of dinghies overtaking me under their own momentum, or a gust of wind, but not under full power and aiming straight for us.  This yacht has a white hull and red antifoul, it came very close to us. I somehow managed to dodge the yacht and then spin the ILB round so both boats are now pointing the same way and I can pace the yacht.  At this point we still have her anchor and all the chain in the ILB, they have the other end of the warp around a cleat. The experience of the crew meant the warp was quickly untied from the anchor chain in our boat, no discussion or instruction needed, just experience and intuition.  I’m just trying to hold her steady in the sweet spot between the bow and stern waves. We both succeed and our rather unusual “tow” is released.


Next, to get them on a mooring.  No visitors moorings in the harbour it would seem. No wonder no one wants to visit!  There is a harbour mooring free, but the buoy has no strops on it, making it impossible to pass a line through the ring without the aid of a dinghy.  Now we are not in the tropics, we are on a lee shore with a choppy force 5 making things tricky. And of course, it is cold, we don’t just hop in a dinghy here, especially one you have to inflate and then row!  They had a couple of attempts at getting the bow close enough to the mooring for us to pass a line through. With an interesting and somewhat unconventional mooring method, where I once again saw too much of that red antifoul, we got a line through the ring and back to the yacht.  He made it fast, I backed us the hell out of there quickly, with some assistance from the wind pushing us out before the line went tight and he made it fast. Phew!


We tie up alongside and I am sent on board to help sort the mooring out with him.  We double the lines up, both still rigged to slip as we realise he would otherwise have to leave a line on the mooring.  Not ideal, but it set good on a bridle with and independent back up. The skipper was happy with it.


Meanwhile the other lads have realised that the other person on board is still gripping the wheel and not looking too great.  While I’m messing with lines, the knowledge, understanding and people skills of our team come out. They are quickly aware of a potential situation and have in in control and resolved, without any of a word needed between our crew.  It turns out it was a visiting yacht with two people on board, they had just completed a nine and a half hour passage, slogging against the wind, to arrive here and hit the unmarked reef. At a guess they slowed down as they ran aground leaving the wind to do the rest, she was pinned on the lee shore, fortunately on a rising tide.


Less than an hour from the pager going we are “Back on Station and ready for service”.  



Was the rude awaking of the RNLI pager going off at 0654 this morning, mostly asleep and slightly confused I stumbled around the bedroom for tracksuit bottoms and as many warm layers as came to hand, boots by the front door, car keys in the usual place and off out into the darkness.  At this point I still had no idea what time it actually was, I had been sound asleep, so it could have been any time between 0200 and 0800, once I’d turned the key in the car ignition the clock showed 0656.   It still looked like the middle of the night, dark, but a clear night with stars, ah lovely, I thought.


This hour of the winter morning gave me a clear drive through the village to the boathouse, which was a treat in itself.  I wondered what the shout could be, the scallop grounds are closed, so unlikely to be a scalloper within the 12 mile limit anyway, leisure craft – I immediately dismissed that idea, lobster boat seemed unlikely in the dark too.   I get to the boathouse and am fifth in the door, my second treat of the day, I’ve actually made it on to the shout!  


It is a call for the ALB (big boat), the only information we have as we get our gear on and launch the boarding boat, is the call is to a small fishing vessel which has broken down 2 miles east of Langness.  Coxswain asks for the time of high water, I check, 0637, 4.9m.  I am still not awake enough to trust my eyes and judgement, another crewman takes a look, now confirmed with four eyes and two brains we can go.  


We launch the boarding boat, climb aboard and head out to the lifeboat, taking care to dodge the string of lobster pots between us and the boat.  All aboard and I’m in the wheelhouse, first job turn the breakers for the nav equipment on, the work front to back, radar, GPS, chartplotter, other GPS.  With our helmsman patiently reading our compass heading (which keeps changing as we swing on the mooring) I get the radar setup with heading, nav input and speed data, then sit down in the nav seat and look at the chartplotter.  RNLI Laserplot looks different today…  We have a new system running, it has been installed while I was away in the Atlantic, yikes!  We do have the same system on the ILB, which I can use fairly competently, but today I sit in the nav seat and my pre cup of tea brain is functioning in its usual way (breathing, moving and basic speech only).  It takes me a couple of minutes to forget my friend Laserplot and meet my new pal SIMMs, with some additional input from most of the crew we get our route on the system.  Fortunately this hasn’t caused us delay, we already know the way to Langness, radar is up and running and there is plenty of visibility to make out the lighthouse there.


Once we round the corner at Langness we see one boat well light up and in the right sort of place so we start to head towards it, an update from the coastguard gives our casualty position as being more to the east, so it isn’t the boat we can see.  Our mechanic is talking to the casualty on the VHF, the casualty vessel has a good bright torch which he now flashes for us, and bingo, we are now sure we see him.   The dawn is starting to break now too and it is cold, but with the dawn light our job gets easier.


The plan is to get the boat in tow, so our crew are on deck preparing the tow line.  The boat itself is only a very small fibreglass powerboat with Z drive and small wheelhouse with two guys on board, the ILB could have done this job!  Our coxswain brings us alongside the small boat, we want to pass the tow line and make if off to their bow.  They have somehow had an oil spill in their boat too and the decks are like an ice rink.  It is almost impossible for one of them to negotiate the narrow rail round the wheelhouse and on to the bow.  While we have hold of them alongside, our quick thinking and long legged mechanic hops over the rail, onto their bow.  I pass him the tow line, he makes if off on their cleat and hops back over the rail onto the lifeboat.  Job done, vessel in tow and we sit tight, making 3.5 knots through the water, luckily the Irish Sea is pushing past Langess at almost three knots, it is going to take just over an hour to get back to Port St Mary.


I didn’t put any thick socks on before I left the house and by now, with just a thin pair in my boots, my feet are freezing and it is making the rest of me cold too.  Later today I will take a pair of welly socks to the boathouse for the future, being out all night like this would be very very unpleasant and being that bit chilly sure slows down your thoughts and movements.


On the plus side, the sun rose some time around 0830 and it was a lovely morning.  The white anvil shaped clouds over the island were lit up with pretty pink colour.  It was a treat to watch the dawn at sea, although the last time I saw sunrise at sea I was in the tropics, shorts, t-shirt, sextant!


As we were coming back round Langness the waves were starting to pick up as the tide was increasing against the wind, it was pretty rocky in our big boat, so I’d say it would have been fairly uncomfortable in the little thing we were towing.  As we headed further inshore it all settled down again into a comfortable tow and we in the harbour within a hour of picking them up.  


Next we needed to get the stranded casualty alongside the harbour wall, the Inner Harbour was going to be the best option for this little boat, so the plan was to stop at our mooring, put a couple of crew in the boarding boat and use that to tow them into the harbour.  In another one of those “make a call quickly” moments it was me that ended up in the boarding boat.  I started her up and went back to the lifeboat to collect another crewman and then off to take the casualty vessel in an alongside tow, while our big boat went to refuel.  It was a nice easy job on a flat calm day.  Leaving our big boat to go a refuel we took the casualty to the harbour and left them alongside a ladder with a phone number for the local boat services.  


I don’t know much about angling, but if it means getting up in the dark to go and sit on a cold boat for no pay, I don’t think it is a pastime for me.