The Opinionated

The Fisher of Men

The RNLI has unjustly faced unfair and unwarranted criticism for simply doing its lifesaving job. It's time to celebrate these heroes instead of chastising them.

AUGUST 11th, 2021

Sennen Cove's Lifeboat. - © Reed Gallery


For as long as human beings have sailed the seas, there has been a legend of “a fisher of men who lives beneath the waves - the last hope of all those who have been left behind.” This is of course only a myth, but most myths are, in some way, based in reality; a collision of fact and fiction giving rise to eternal legends. In truth, there are “fishers” of men, though they don’t live beneath the sea. Instead they exist in almost every harbour and coastal town, living within the communities they selflessly serve. They are coloured in yellow, navy blue, and red. Like the myths of old, they truly are the last hope of all those who have been left behind. These men and women are the RNLI, and now more than ever do they deserve our support.

For 200 years, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) has saved lives from the clutches of the unforgiving oceans. They have, and continue to, uphold the mantra from Sir William Hillary - the institute’s founder: “With courage nothing is impossible…” That ‘courage’ has seen the RNLI rescue over 16,000 people per year, with their lifeboats launching almost twenty-three times a day. These rescues are conducted with utmost precision even though the elements which await them are both unpredictable and unforgiving.

The launch sequence of Sennen Cove's lifeboat. - © Reed Gallery

With modern technology, creative and state of the art ship builders, the RNLI’s fleet of lifeboats are some of the most advanced anywhere in the world. The Shannon class lifeboats are the RNLI’s latest model, and with the institution promising every all-weather lifeboat crew a 25-knot lifeboat, the shipbuilders are expected to build six new lifeboats every year.

These vessels are incapable of capsizing, their hull is four inches thick, and an improved Systems and Information Management System (SIMS) enables the crew to operate and monitor many of the lifeboat’s functions from the safety of their seats. They can carry upto seventy-nine survivors and reach speeds of upto 25 knots.

These lifeboats are an engineering marvel as if designed by Neptune himself, and yet they aren’t what makes the RNLI the heroic organisation we far too often take for granted. That accolade belongs to the crews who risk life and limb to save those in distress.

Yet, in recent months, those heroics have been either forgotten, or worse, purposely criticised. With the migrant crisis across the English Channel growing in severity with more and more boats taking the perilous journey, the RNLI has faced criticism for intercepting these boats and bringing their passengers aboard to safety.

Sennen Cove's Lifeboat in the refurbished lifeboat shed. - © Reed Gallery

In doing so, it seems as if those who so easily jump to critique the actions of the RNLI forget the entire purpose of one of Britain’s greatest institutions - to save lives, irrespective of who that life belongs to. To these seastorming heroes a life is a life, it is as simple as that, and unlike those who question the heroic actions of the countless crews across our coastline, they understand that our seas are unforgiving. They don’t determine the value of a life depending on nationality or creed, and the oceans don’t operate within the confines of politics or social constructs.

Of course these crossings are dangerous, life threatening and wrong. To place such precious life into an overcrowded dingy and sail them across a perilous stretch of open water - one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world - is a callous and cruel crime. Yet, why are some punishing the RNLI instead of the people traffickers profiting off such human despair, and more so the government?

Immigration is a complex subject which is multifaceted at the best of times, and the argument for a more robust policy is understandable. But we also need to understand that the RNLI is not a part of this conversation. Their crews are not politicians, they aren’t even paid for the role they do. Voluntarily, these men and women drop everything to answer a distress call, heading out into unpredictable conditions without hesitation.

The Duke of Cambridge - a former Search and Rescue helicopter pilot himself summed up perfectly the role of the RNLI in a foreword for the 2013 book “The Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts”, writing: “I will never forget the first time I witnessed a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat crew in action. Their professionalism, their skills and their commitment were something to behold - it’s hard to believe they are volunteers. These men and women make themselves available every day and night, all year, all around the coast of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. They give up their time to train for difficult and dangerous rescues, and carry them out with great courage.”

Sennen Cove's Lifeboat in black and white - © Reed Gallery

The courage which Prince William describes stems beyond the commentaries surrounding whether the RNLI has now become “woke”, particularly for assisting migrants who come into difficulty when crossing the channel. Irrespective of the naysayers and criticisers, who one day could find themselves in peril on the seas, these impressive men and women will continue to perform the job they believe is their solemn duty. When the bell rings, they’ll continue to answer the call, and whoever and however a life has come into danger, the RNLI will continue to be there, the fisher of men - the last hope of all those who have been left behind.

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