West Mersea Lifeboat

West Mersea Lifeboat Station… a brief history

During the fifty one years of service at least 150 lives have been saved in over 1,650 service launches, making West Mersea one of the busiest stations in the British Isles.

The RNLI lifeboat service in Mersea was formed in 1963 and so is now over 50 years old. We were one of the first stations to use inflatable ‘D Class’ lifeboats, making the Inshore Lifeboat service or ‘ILB’ 50 years old as well. Previous to this all lifeboats were of the large displacement ‘All Weather’ type, most with a maximum speed of 9 knots.

Our story in Mersea started in 1960/61 when Diggle Haward, a well-known local yachtsman and former Commodore of the Wivenhoe and the Dabchicks Sailing Clubs, decided that owing to the increasing number of pleasure boats on the Blackwater Estuary, “something should be done about it”. Diggle called a meeting of local people with an idea of starting a Mersea Rescue Service. There were several boats involved among them Magia (F. M. Haward), the Dabchicks Sailing Club Rescue Launch and the West Mersea Yacht Club Launch. There were no radios and for two years the service operated on a very amateur but extremely keen and successful basis in close liaison with the police, who actually called them out for assistance.

The Lifeboat team at the old boathouse in 1983

In 1962 Diggle Haward approached the R.N.L.I. with a suggestion of having an RNLI Inshore Rescue Boat stationed at Mersea. A member of the H.Q. Operational and Technical staff of the R.N.L.I. came and brought a demonstration 16ft ‘D’ type inflatable inshore rescue boat for everybody to have a look at. There was a report back to H.Q. and Diggle was asked to form a Station Committee for the establishment of an Inshore Rescue Boat (IRB) Station of the R.N.L.I. at West Mersea, which would be operational during daylight hours only and during the summer months from approximately lst April to 30th October. This was indeed progress and Diggle Haward himself became the first Hon. Sec. of the Station Committee, the Chairman being Mr. B. Rainbird.

According to available records, the first volunteer crews were: A. Clarke, A. Muir, B. Reed, P. Clarke, P. French, P. Mead, J. Clarke, D. Stoker, D. Haward, C. Milgate.

Peter French and Peter Clarke in an early IRB

Peter French and Peter Clarke in an early IRB

By kind permission of Clarke & Carters Boatyard, the I.R.B. was kept in the open on a trolley in the front of their forecourt. Fortunately vandalism was not quite the problem that it is now and the boat suffered very little, although occasionally there was a certain amount of ‘floppiness’ in the inflatable sponsons and a great deal of surplus energy was used on pumping her up.

It is hard to realise that in those early days the I.R.B. was not equipped with radio and once the Coastguard called them out, they had no means of communication apart from telephoning. There was at least one occasion when, during a search off Colne Point, Albert Clarke and Peter French both then crewmen, took the boat ashore and walked up to the telephone box to enquire from the Coastguard whether or not they should continue a certain search! From the record book, there are obviously occasions when a lot of fruitless time and energy was spent on exhausting searches which resulted in “nothing to report” or called off by the Coastguard because people concerned had eventually been found safely ashore. This little I.R.B. was no fun in heavy weather, the crew were very much exposed even though she was restricted to ‘summer service’ only, although there were many occasions when she was quietly launched (incidentally without the maroons!) to effect a rescue after dark.

After about two years, the Station was re-equipped with a Zodiac Inflatable, and once again due to the increase in boating and consequent public interest, the B.B.C. came down and produced a small documentary and what is even more important, our local Council became interested when they realised that the boat and it’s volunteer crew were an integral part of the emergency services, just as much as the ambulance and fire services.

At this stage, Paddy Hare, well-known Managing Director of Gowans, the sail makers, and local yachtsman, offered the R.N.L.I. the use of a shed (formerly used as a store by the Army Sailing Association) as a boathouse. This offer the R.N.L.I. gratefully accepted and before they moved in, Paddy arranged for the concrete floor to be put in and Vernon Powell another well known member of the local sailing fraternity, provided the portable ramp to enable the boat trolley to be wheeled out across the road prior to launching. Local teamwork support came to our assistance again and a radio for the Zodiac was provided from a special fund raising project by the Station throughout the area. At this stage, it is very important to remember that local financial support and fund raising efforts were steadily increasing, not only for this Station but for the R.N.L.I. in its entirety.

Jim and Peter Clarke with Graham Knott in an early Atlantic 21 in 1971

Jim and Peter Clarke with Graham Knott in an early Atlantic 21 in 1971

In 1971 the R.N.L.I. decided to station one of the new Atlantic 21 Inshore Lifeboats at West Mersea, on a fully operational basis, i.e. 24 hours call, night and day, summer and winter. This was one of the first prototype Atlantic 21’s to go on full service, closely followed by one at Southwold. (In fact, our colleagues at Southwold reckon that we pinched their boat, having jumped the gun on the order list!) This boat was followed in 1975 by a production Atlantic 21, the Alexander Duckham which was presented to the RNLI by the well-known oil manufacturers of that name. This boat provided excellent service for 12 years until she was replaced in 1987 by another Atlantic 21 Himley Hall, taking the name of the Himley Hall Sailing Club, whose members raised the funds to pay for her.

In 1991 work was started on a new boathouse in the current location and in 1992 the lifeboat moved along the road to it’s new home. There was no tractor at this time, the boat being pushed down the ramp to the water and pulled back with a winch. In 2001 the boathouse was extended to accommodate a tractor which was going to be necessary for our next boat, an Atlantic 75 which is larger and heavier and includes a water ballast tank in the bow.

The Atlantic 21 Himley Hall was on station from 1987 until 2001

The Atlantic 21 Himley Hall was on station from 1987 until 2001

In 2001 the Himley Hall reached the end of her service life and retired into the reserve fleet, to replace lifeboats that are off-service for re-fit or repair.

The Atlantic 75 that now came to Mersea was the Dignity, our current lifeboat, named after Dignity Funeral Services, whose employees raised the money for her.

The lifeboat cycle is repeating and Dignity is 13 years old this year and is due to be replaced by the slightly larger Atlantic 85 which carries one more crew member and extra equipment, including radar and VHF direction finding.

West Mersea’s current Lifeboat Dignity is due to be replaced in 2014

West Mersea’s current Lifeboat Dignity is due to be replaced in 2014

During Mersea lifeboat’s history since 1963, more than 150 lives have been saved and by 2014 the crew had completed more than 1600 service launches, making this station one of the busiest in the British Isles.

1963 A lifeboat service was launched following an initiative by ‘Diggle’ Hayward who had approached the RNLI in 1962 about having a lifeboat capability in the summer months. Diggle became Hon Sec of the West Mersea IRB station of the RNLI, equipped with a 16’ inflatable D type boat which was kept in the boatyard of Clarke and Carter’s opposite the Town Hard. The boat was not equipped with radio and on occasions the crew had to wade ashore to a telephone box to ring the Coastguard to update the rescue they were tasked to attend!

1965, Thanks to local businessman Paddy Hare, a shed, now known as the Old Lifeboat Station, was made available opposite the Town Hard.

1971, An Atlantic 21 B class lifeboat was stationed at Mersea operational round the clock, throughout the year.

1973 The Lifeboat Guild was established to raise money for the RNLI through souvenir sales at stalls at outside events

1975 The Alexander Duckham, Atlantic 21 arrived on station.

1987 Another Atlantic 21, the Himley Hall, named after the donors, a sailing club in the Midlands, took up station .

1992 The current boathouse was opened by HRH The Duke of Kent. It provided an operations and crew room and space for a small souvenir shop.

2001 The boathouse was extended to accommodate a launching tractor and Himley Hall was replaced by Dignity, kindly provided by the generosity of the employees of the Dignity Funeral

2011 Three local men, Phil Passfield, Simon Liston and John Royce raised £8.000 in a sponsored John O’Groats to Land’s End cycling marathon. Mersea won the battle of the stations between Burnham and Mersea RNLI teams at cricket played out on the Buxey Sands in a short time slot either side of low water

2012 The Chief Executive of the RNLI, Paul Boissier, was welcomed on a visit to the station

2013 The fiftieth anniversary of a lifeboat service on the island was commemorated on a special Open Day. Among many visitors with long associations with the station was Peter French aged 91, one of those pictured in the photograph of the first boat in 1963

2014 Dignity is replaced by Atlantic 85 B-879 Just George.

[Top Picture Credit: Mersea’s first Lifeboat arrives in 1962. A 16ft ‘D’ Type. Standing behind boat are L-R: Ernie Vince, Unknown (believed to be from RNLI headquarters), Bert Carter, Harold Cutts, ‘Diggle’ Haward, Jim Clarke, Colin Milgate, Peter French, Raymond D’Wit, Richard Haward, Bill Read, Peter Clarke, Douglas Stoker and Mick Frost. The boys in the background include: Barry Swiggs, John ‘Hoss’ Hoy and Jack Hoy.]


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