To the rescue
It's a sunny August afternoon on the south coast and everybody's all at sea. Flotillas of pleasure craft crowd the placid waters of Chichester Harbour and the holiday traffic crawling down the channel leading out to sea makes it look like the nautical equivalent of a dual carriageway.
"You should see it on the weekends," says Jonathan Bradbury, "it's like a motorway."
Jonathan, a volunteer helmsman at Hayling Island's lifeboat station and an IT teacher at its only secondary school, has to be ready to respond to any emergency on the busy waters surrounding the island. But the clear skies and light breeze make for perfect sailing weather and the pager in Jonathan's pocket has been quiet all day.
But it's not always plain sailing. Jonathan remembers a September night when the wind was blowing a force 9, gusting 10 ("that's when the rain hurts") and a yacht was spotted out in the bay and in trouble. "It shouldn't have been out in that weather. It only had a bit of sail up and it was going round and round in circles. We couldn't get it on the radio and it was heading across the bay towards a sandbank." The lifeboat launched and got to the yacht just as it ran aground. "I jumped on board. The people were so tired they didn't know what they were doing. The waves were so big that they were crashing over us and the boat was almost on its side.
The storm had carried the boat several miles across a sandbank, then thrown it back into deep water. Jonathan managed to steer to the safety of a nearby marina, returning the boat and its crew in one piece.
"It was pretty hairy," he recalls. But fear is a word that doesn't figure in his vocabulary. "You are too busy to get scared. You are constantly concentrating on the sea and your adrenalin is really pumping."
Hayling Island is home to the country's third busiest lifeboat station. In 1996 they made 122 rescues and with 66 sorties so far this year, the number of seafarers needing assistance shows no sign of abating.
Like all emergency services, call-outs can range from the dramatic to the mundane. Jonathan's most recent rescue involved some youths whose boat had drifted ashore on Ministry of Defence land. He arrived to find a couple of familiar, sheepish-looking faces. "They were pupils who had just left school - so when they saw me it was 'oh hello, sir!' " Other recipients of the service aren't so polite. "What's interesting is the reaction of people. Some of them are extremely grateful and will give you a bottle of whisky or some money for the lifeboat. Some regard it as a kind of free AA service and the hooray Henrys regard it as a right. They can be fearful for their lives one minute and then as soon as we arrive they'll be saying 'be careful, don't scratch the boat!' But we are here to save lives and I couldn't care less about their yachts. "
A keen sailor since his university days, Jonathan became a lifeboatman in 1985 after a staff- room chat with a fellow teacher and Royal National Lifeboat Institute volunteer who encouraged him to join. After a six- month probationary period and a week's intensive training, he became a fully-fledged crew member. Maritime know-how is a must but when the sea-going gets tough, comradeship and a calm temperament are called for. "You have to build up a certain trust because there are situations where you have to rely on one another."
Hayling Island's lifeboat station, built in 1994, replaced a much older structure ("It looked like a gents' toilet" says Jonathan). Downstairs the station's two boats, the 25-foot Betty Battle and smaller Leonard Stedman stand ready for action, next to the small museum decorated with gallantry awards. Upstairs there is modern telecommunications and weather forecasting equipment, and a pair of former Czech army binoculars bought by fisherman are used for looking over the bay.
The RNLI relies entirely on public donations, but it spares no expense in making sure its volunteers are well prepared for the unpredictable nature of the seas. "It's doing something that's worthwhile and it's a service to society. It is useful but it's also fun, otherwise I wouldn't do it."
The real appeal is "the excitement of not knowing what the situation's going to be. It's completely different from the run of the mill day-to-day existence." The coastguard's call comes only occasionally during school hours ("Not nearly often enough!") and the lifeboat's busiest period is during the summer holidays.
"I don't make a big deal out of it at school. The kids will sometimes see something in the paper and ask 'Were you in the lifeboat the other day?' They are far more interested when I have to go out and someone has to cover for me and they don't have to do so much work."
Sadly, Jonathan's days of dropping everything and heading off for the high seas are numbered. RNLI rules decree that volunteers hang up their drysuits at 45, so this will be his last summer of service. "There's only so much pounding your back can take. When you go over a big wave in the boat it's like jumping off a 10-foot wall. I just wish it was the other way around and I could retire from teaching," he laughs.