Rescuers prepare for confrontation over inflatable lifeboat: The RNLI is to replace the all-weather boat at Flamborough Head with a vessel that the crew say will be unstable in the treacherous North Sea. Malcolm Pithers reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A SAVAGE sea was pounding the deck, a gale force wind threatening to force the pitching vessel into a fatal roll to the bottom of the North Sea.

The crewmen, out gathering nets before the weather and the dark devoured them, worked on calmly, anxious to finish their day's work. They kept relaying their position and the time they expected to reach Bridlington harbour. It was not a day to linger long at sea.

On dry land, some 40 miles away, the crew of the Flamborough Head lifeboat were listening on their radios to the voices of men they knew well. They too were anxious, ready to rush to the rescue, though this time there was no need: the coble - a single-masted fishing boat - made it back to safety.

Now, however, there is talk of mutiny among the lifeboat crew and confrontation with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution seems inevitable. The men have been told that their traditional, all-weather lifeboat is to be replaced in the new year by an Atlantic 21/22 inshore inflatable.

The decision, taken by the RNLI at Poole in Dorset, has so angered the crewmen in Flamborough that they say they will no longer man their station if the new boat arrives. They believe that although quicker and cheaper to maintain, the craft would be unsafe in the sort of conditions the Yorkshire coble faced.

They have told the RNLI that if they cannot keep their lifeboat they will not operate the new one. The RNLI says that the new craft is in successful service elsewhere and Flamborough will have to follow suit. The plan is to build a new station and slipway but not at the traditional north landing.

The men argue that though the new craft would be faster, it would also be far lighter, not as stable, and would not be able to operate in certain conditions.

Stephen Emmerson, 32, one of the senior crewmen on the lifeboat, said he would not 'under any circumstances' go to sea in the new boat. 'Our main concern is that this craft is not up to the task from this particular place. It is a bad decision and men will not crew it. We need an all-weather boat from here,

The crew, who have been credited with saving 43 lives, have prepared a report on their operation. Flamborough Head has, they say, complicated and dangerous tidal conditions, hazardous rocks and scars. The tide can run in three different directions at once causing steep and treacherous seas. To move the station further south would mean running a risk of rolling as they approach land.

A spokeswoman for the RNLI said that 'the requirement at Flamborough is for a fast inshore lifeboat. This decision has been reached having regard to all the statistics'. She added: 'This has nothing to do with cost but is an operational matter.'

On 7 May 1984, two fishing boats, the Carol Sandra and the North Wind 111, were lost off the Flamborough coast. Seven fishermen died. Stephen Emmerson said: 'We fear that if they go ahead with this, it will only be a matter of time before history repeats itself, only this time lifeboat men would perish as well.'

(Photograph omitted)