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Feature Lifeboats on the Thames

On 20 August 1989 the pleasure cruiser Marchioness and dredger Bowbelle collided on London's River Thames beneath Southwark Bridge. The accident, which cost the lives of 51 people, led to demands for a fundamental review of emergency response procedures on the Thames and an urgent need to step up search and rescue cover on the river.

The RNLI was asked by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to provide a rescue service with a 15-minute response time to any point on the tidal Thames between Canvey Island.

Four lifeboat stations became operational on 2 January 2002, at Tower Pier, Chiswick Pier, Gravesend and Teddington. The first three will be permanently manned to provide an immediate response.

The fourth, at Teddington, will be operated entirely using volunteers in the same way as the 223 lifeboat stations around the coasts of the UK and Republic of Ireland. The MCA will coordinate search and rescue on the river from the Port of London Authority operations room at the Thames Barrier.

'There are in excess of 100 incidents on the river each year and over 100,000 people use the Thames every day' said Michael Vlasto, operations director. 'By providing well trained and well equipped lifeboat crews and calling on 177 years of lifeboat experience, we can provide a dedicated search and rescue service for Londoners and those using the river.' Londoners have a long history of supporting the RNLI through donations and fundraising - particularly on London Lifeboat Day, which takes place in March every year. Now, for the first time, the capital will have its own lifeboats around which to raise funds. They are also a way of repaying the support given over the years.

The boats being used on the Thames are Tiger Marine fast response craft which look similar to the Atlantic 75 but are slightly bigger, powered by water jets and capable of 40 knots. The boat for Teddington will be a traditional D class lifeboat. Training in the use of the boats in Thames conditions took place during late 2001 in preparation for 2 January.

An extensive and combined RNLI and Coastguard public awareness campaign started in December designed to get the public used to dialling 999 and asking for the London Coastguard. It will be centred around the London Underground's prominent poster sites and will be backed up by a media campaign.

Three station managers have been appointed to run the full time stationsand a committee for Teddington is up and running.

There has already been much media interest in the personalities behind the service with extensive news and feature coverage, even before the stations open, and Carlton Television is planning to make six half-hour programmes around lifeboats on the Thames. There is also much interest in the new service from big business in the capital with some major league companies pledging support through the release of staff to help crew the boats. Companies like Fullers, Sainsburys and Shell are among those giving their support.

Government ministers were due to attend the launch on 2 January (after theLifeboat went to print) which promised to be a big day for London and Thames users. It will also be remembered as the day the Thames became a safer river with its own coordinated and dedicated search and rescue service.Lifeboats and the Thames A snapshot from the past The provision of lifeboats on the river Thames in 2002 is not the first involvement of the Institution with the river.

In recent years several lifeboats have visited the Royal Festival Hall pier for the Annual Presentation of Awards as public relations courtesy visits. The US Coast Guard boat, which became the prototype Waveney class, 44-001. was shipped from America to Tilbury before sailing to Poole and in 1998 and 1999, having retired from service, paid courtesy visits to Kingston-upon-Thames.

But the connection goes back much further. From 1882 until 1939, the RNLI store-yard was at Poplar, east London.

The depot, which was used to keep relief lifeboat and launching carriages, maintained a rigging loft and undertook testing of the lifeboats' self-righting qualities. There was a thriving boatbuilding community on that part of the river and the firms of Forrest of Limehouse and Woolfe of Poplar were often used to build lifeboats.

For a dozen years from 1899, the Thames Ironworks, Shipbuilding and Engineering Company of Canning Town was such a major supplier to the RNLI that a member of lifeboat staff worked in and alongside the yard in a qualitycontrol role almost full time.

The modern Tiger rescue craft, to be called the E class, will not be the first jet-propelled lifeboat on the Thames. In 1890 the first steam-powered lifeboat, the Duke of Northumberland, powered by what was then known as the hydraulic principle, steamed up the Thames from the maker's yard, J and F Green of Blackwall, to the Institution's President's estate at Syon House, opposite Kew Gardens. This boat was later to serve at Harwich, Holyhead and New Brighton in an active life of over 30 years. In 1897 Thorneycroft of Chiswick was involved in building The Queen, which was a similar boat to the Duke of Northumberland. The Queen nearly became, even as early as 1897, the first lifeboat to be oil burning but coal eventually won the day and the lifeboat served an active life of 26 years.

We can now look forward to a continuation of the tradition so ably begun by these men who built and worked on lifeboats a century ago. Full time and volunteer crews will now provide rescue cover for the tidal Thames from Teddington lock to the sea.Three full-time managers have been appointed for three of the four lifeboats stations. The appointments are Wayne Bellamy at Chiswick Pier, Janet Kelly at Tower Pier and Ian Dunkley at Gravesend.Corporate support The Thames lifeboat stations posed some quite unique problems in finding volunteers to crew the boats. Suzanne Long, corporate relations manager at the RNLI's London office, explains how the city's companies provided vital support The RNLI has always enjoyed strong support from the corporate community in London and, in particular, the City. The lifeboats at Dover, Selsey and Salcombe have all been funded by appeals based in the City and the RNLI was, of course, founded in the City Tavern in the heart of the Square Mile.

There are many charities vying for the attention of people in the City, so building up strong lasting working relationships with companies is vital to the corporate relations team. We have to look for partnerships - things that will be of mutual benefit to us and the company. In these days of investor power, companies have to justify their support for charities.

The Thames lifeboats gave me a completely different offer to make to the corporate community in London. The RNLI was now offering them the chance to let their employees see the sharp end of the service as volunteer crew on the Thames boats. Unlike the traditional coastal stations, the Thames lifeboat stations, and particularly Tower, suffer from the fact that there is practically no residential housing around the station. The possibility of volunteer crew living a few minutes from the station was unrealistic, so the only way to have a crew on hand would be to have them on station at all times throughout their watch. This would mean an extensive commitment on the part of their employers who would have to release them for long periods.

To make this viable and cost effective from the RNLI's point of view, I had to ask firms to release a crew member for two watches per month, each lasting twelve hours, and to give an undertaking to crew for at least twelve months. This is a lot to ask for, so in choosing how to talk to companies, I tailored each approach to how I thought the idea would appeal to the company.

With some I talked about developing and extending their involvement with the RNLI in a way that got away from further sponsorship. To existing supporters, like Fullers, this was very attractive. In allowing their staff to volunteer, they are actively demonstrating their commitment to the RNLI and to the local community in Chiswick, where they are based.

To other companies based in the City, I was able to talk about the staff development aspect. Teamwork, management skills, working under pressure, time management - all areas that companies spend a large amount of time and money on in staff training and these are skills that their employees will learn as volunteer crews.

The chance for the companies to publicise their involvement was also there. As one company said, they thought this would be a great bonus to them to talk about in their Annual Report to their shareholders amongst the major achievements of their employees throughout the year.

The result I hope for will be that the third seat in each boat will be filled by a volunteer. We will have started to develop new and better relationships with companies that are strong and involve more commitment than the RNLI has previously had. The companies involved acquire a better knowledge and understanding of the RNLI and secure their support for many years to come.'Fuller's Brewery has operated on the same site in Chiswick since 1845. We have close links with the local community and the stretch of the River Thames that runs along the back of the brewery. We were delighted to hear that we would be getting a lifeboat here in West London. Fuller's are long-time supporters of Chiswick Pier and believe that this development will be a great benefit to the area. We would like to offer the HNLI our full support in this venture.' Anthony Fuller, chaiman, Fuller Smith & Turner PLC.