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Virtual training makes waves

Trainee lifeboat crew will learn their craft at a pound;25m college. Martin Whittaker reports

An old photograph on Sue Hennessy's wall shows a row of lifeboatmen standing proudly next to their vessel. And proudest of all in the picture is the craft's coxswain - her great-grandfather.

Most of the men in the picture, which is dated 1891, were fishermen, she says. Today, following the decline of the maritime industries, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution crew are likely to be a very different breed.

"Our volunteers reflect all occupations," she says. "We have doctors, bank managers, painters and decorators, hairdressers and 10 per cent are women.

"Fewer than 10 per cent now come with any maritime experience."

That poses a problem as lifeboats and equipment have become more sophisticated so to meet this training need, the RNLI has just launched its new pound;25 million Lifeboat College.

Perched on the docks at Poole in Dorset and officially opened by the Queen in July, it has state-of-the-art training facilities and accommodation for the charity's lifeboat crews and administration staff.

Sue Hennessy, a former geography teacher, is its principal.

The design of the new college's buildings - sweeping curves, railings and portholes - has such a strong maritime influence that they look as if they could set sail themselves.

The facilities include a 150-seat auditorium, and a survival tank which generates waves and can replicate conditions crews might face at sea.

There is also a simulator for teaching lifeboat crews search and rescue techniques and navigation. The simulator pitches and tosses with the waves and outside is a virtual Dover harbour, with blazing oil tanker, rescue helicopters and survivors in the water.

It can mimic any sea conditions, including gales, mountainous waves and fog.

The college also has a learning resources centre which will generate and distribute the charity's own learning materials to train crews at lifeboat stations throughout the country.

To become a volunteer lifeboat crew member you have to be over 17, fit, have excellent eyesight, and live or work within a couple of miles of a lifeboat station. And that's not quite all.

"These people are putting their own lives at risk," says Sue Hennessy.

"It's about commitment to each other, commitment to be available.

"Our lifeboats are there 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and they go when and where they are needed. We need to know that volunteers can commit themselves to that, and that they are adequately trained."

Last year the RNLI won two national training awards. The charity makes its training as flexible as possible in recognition of the demands on its volunteers' time.

From their probationary stage, it would take a volunteer between one to two years to become a crew member depending on maritime experience.

Every lifeboat crew has to be able to navigate very sophisticated boats through treacherous seas, tend to medical emergencies, often hours from other help, strip down an engine at sea and work with helicopter pilots often in atrocious weather.

"We have to teach boat handling skills and seamanship from scratch," says Sue Hennessy. "It's literally from zero to hero."

At first sight the college looks rather plush for a facility built on legacies. It has 60 en-suite bedrooms, a health and fitness suite, restaurant and bar with polished wooden floors, leather chairs and panoramic views of Poole harbour.

It will also offset much of its own cost in the long-run. Previously trainees were put up in hotels and bed breakfast, which was costly for the charity. Last year the hotel bill for training and conference reached pound;1.3m.

And Sue Hennessy points out that this is the least the RNLI can do for its 4,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members, who answer "the shout" on more than 6,700 lifeboat launches each year.

"A person volunteers, puts their life at risk, gives up huge amounts of time and uses their holiday entitlement to train. What do we do? We ensure they have the best of lifeboats, equipment and training."

She says the college could also be used for school visits: "One of the things the RNLI needs to do is to build our support for the future. Who are our future volunteer crews? We need to engage their hearts and minds now."

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