High Sheriff highlights Drowning Prevention Week and the work of the RNLI

High Sheriff of West Sussex Dr Tim Fooks, in his weekly briefing on projects in the county, highlights the work of the RNLI, with a focus on Drowning Prevention Week.

Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 11:56 am

The coastline of West Sussex is over 80km (50 miles) long and during the Covid lockdown it was effectively closed to the public. Non-essential boating was banned and, for a while, the seals outnumbered swimmers in Chichester’s beautiful natural harbour.

However, the powerful attraction of the sea did not disappear and once the beaches were opened again two weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of us have flocked back to enjoy the sun, sand and sea - while maintaining social distancing.

The sea is clearly a source of great delight but it can also be a source of danger. Data from the National Water Safety Forum showed that in 2019, 12 people accidently drowned along the West Sussex coast and a number also died due to self-harm. And while it is certainly reassuring that lifeguards are once again monitoring the west and east Littlehampton beaches, the Royal Life Saving Society UK (RLSS) has nominated this week (June 12-18) Drowning Prevention Week and is campaigning to ensure all of us learn the skills needed to keep safe in the water.

The motto of the RNLI is 'with courage, nothing is impossible'

But at times, the sea can catch any of us out: tides rip, engines fail, boats go aground. The same wind that can power the 170 wind turbines of the Rampion Wind Farm to provide enough electricity for 350,000 houses, can cause sea conditions to change rapidly.

In moments, calm can turn to chaos but, whether there is a casualty on a gale-bound ship 30 miles across the Channel or a child in an inflatable dinghy being swept away from a beach by a sudden wind-shift, an emergency call by radio or 999 will set in motion the best sea safety and rescue service in the world.

Distress calls are picked up by HM Coastguard’s Operations Centre at Fareham and may be directed to their mobile unit based in Littlehampton.

If a sea-rescue is required, the details are sent to a Lifeboat Operations Manager (LOM) at one of the three RNLI stations at Shoreham, Selsey and Littlehampton, who calls-up the coxswain, the volunteer crew and decides which vessel to use. All three stations have inshore lifeboats (ILB), which are led by a helm, and Shoreham and Selsey also have all-weather lifeboats (ALB), which are led by a coxswain and can go offshore.

Selsey lifeboatmen go to the aid of a yacht that had run aground on the Mixon rocks off Selsey Bill

The coxswain chooses the crew from those that respond and they launch into whatever sea and weather conditions are prevailing at the time. To do this at a moment’s notice requires teamwork, courage and training of the highest order, a meticulously maintained boat and a very well-supported station.

When I spoke to coxswain Steve Smith from RNLI Shoreham and Tony Delahunty OBE, a LOM at RNLI Selsey, they were both full of praise for the commitment of their volunteers.

As Steve said: “To be able to save a life at sea is the best job in the world but it is not something you can do alone.”

Despite Covid-19, both Selsey and Shoreham have made sure they have always been able to respond to several ‘shouts’ during the last few weeks.

The crew of the yacht that went aground on the Mixon rock off Selsey Bill three weeks ago must have been mightily relieved to see the local ILB arrive, wait for six hours until the tide had refloated them and then tow them to safety.

The motto of the RNLI is ‘with courage, nothing is impossible’ and while these sea safety experts are rightly proud of the work they do, they would much prefer it if we did not get into trouble in the first place.

As the HM Coastguard poster says ‘take extra care in these extraordinary times’.

For more information on safety, visit rnli.org/safety and for details on Drowning Prevention Week, visit www.rlss.org.uk/drowning-prevention-week

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