All hands on deck when the bell rings

7th March 2003 at 00:00

John Ward is all at sea when he leaves work. Elaine Williams talks to the teacher who doubles up as a lifeboatman

Saving lives has been John Ward's chief preoccupation outside the classroom for the past 30 years.

As a lifeboatman in Filey, North Yorkshire, Mr Ward can be called away from his post as head of Years 10 and 11 in the town's secondary school at any time. Within three minutes of his pager sounding the alarm, he can be down at the lifeboat launch with his crew, ready to head into the open sea off this rugged coastline.

One sunny, summer afternoon stands out in his memory. It was the last day of term, school had finished at lunchtime and pupils were teeming down to the beach. Mr Ward was in town when his pager went off. A swimmer was in difficulty north of the brigg - a finger of rock at the end of Filey Bay stretching out into the North Sea. "If it's a swimmer," says Mr Ward, "you have to be quick. We went out in the inshore lifeboat and found a boy struggling in the water off Black Hole - a rock where local lads go to dive. He wouldn't have lasted much longer. In certain weather conditions the swell is greater out there than you'd expect. When we fished him out, I saw it was a lad I teach. You get a real buzz from a rescue like that."

Only last month, just as he was sitting down to Sunday lunch, he was called out in a Force 8 gale to save a diving party of 10, including a child, from an inflatable boat that was being blown offshore, in danger of capsizing.

The divers had intended to stay close to the cliffs where the sea was calm, but their boat had broken down.

Apart from helping to save a pupil, Mr Ward has also rescued the parents of pupils, local fishermen who have got into trouble. Not only that, but every one of the 26-strong lifeboat crew, bar the coxswain, is a former pupil. Mr Ward has taught them all. He says: "They try to wind me up by telling stories about how naughty they were at school. It's their idea of a little joke."

Working on the lifeboats, he says, has "kept my sense of humour going" and kept the day job in perspective. "Some people are 150 per cent teachers, they live and breathe school. I'm not sure that's healthy. I can switch hats very easily."

Mr Ward joined Filey secondary school as an English and drama teacher after a successful first job interview, and the lifeboat crew not long after that. His out-of-school activity has benefited the school as well as himself, he says, by strengthening links with the community. His colleagues are his backers. Fifteen years ago they formally agreed to cover him for the times he would be called out during school hours - they felt it was the least they could do for the town. As well as manning the lifeboat for most of his working life, he has also played a major role in the St John's Ambulance and Sea Cadets.

A first-aider since he was at school, he is a past superintendent of the St John's Ambulance Filey division. After a break during the mid-1980s, when he studied part-time to convert his Cert Ed into a B Ed, he set up a sea cadets unit in Filey and became a sailing and power boat instructor. He is presently the sea cadets' area staff officer in charge of training for eastern England. With two small children and a wife, Jo, a Scarborough harbourmaster's daughter, his life couldn't be fuller. That's the way Mr Ward likes it.

There are, of course, sad occasions when the lifeboat is called out but lives are lost. On one rescue attempt that sears his memory, the lifeboat was launched for a small fishing vessel with three on board, missing off Flamborough Head. It was never found. Not only that, during the course of the search, another boat with seven on board capsized in the rough sea right in front of the lifeboat. Three were saved in dramatic circumstances.

For that occasion, one of the crew received a Vellum award (the Royal National Lifeboat Institution's highest award) for outstanding bravery. But four were drowned. The crew, says Mr Ward, cannot allow themselves to dwell unduly on such tragedy: "You don't make light of it, but you have to look at tragedy, assess it and move on. You never know when the next call might come - and you have to be ready for it."

He never thinks of the risk to his own life, although as deputy coxswain of the all-weather lifeboat he is well aware of the dangers. He says: "You're too busy thinking about what the wind and tide are doing, what the sea conditions are like. There's a real excitement to it. It's only afterwards that you might think, `Well, that was a bit dodgy'."

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