Ten years with the RNLI… pressing on

Ten years with the RNLI… pressing on

Martin Luther King Jr once said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others”.

I never knew much about the RNLI. A bunch of my friends from school were (and still are) on the crew in Bundoran. Their new lifeboat was having its naming ceremony one Saturday afternoon in May 2010 so down I went to have a look. A lovely ceremony and everyone beaming with pride celebrating the arrival of the new Atlantic 85 lifeboat kindly donated by the Liddington family in memory of their late father William.

ten years with the RNLI

A few weeks later I was back down at the lifeboat station to watch Ryan Tubridy broadcast his RTE Radio 1 show live to the nation from the boat bay on his “Bucket & Spade” tour.

ten years with the rnli
Ryan Tubridy starts his show at the water’s edge

It was at this point that I met PR boss within the RNLI, Niamh Stephenson, introduced to me by my now predecessor Colm Hamrogue. I floated (no pun intended) the idea of doing a radio documentary telling the story of Bundoran lifeboat and how it had come to be. At this point I was still working in Dublin with radio station Q102 and back I went that day up the N4 with some ideas mulling around my head. The documentary was given the green light and I landed down to the lifeboat station across a few weekends to record interviews and sound effects to include in the production and also took a spin out the Port Tunnel from Q102’s base near the O2 to the RNLI Divisional Base in Swords to interview Owen Medland – then Training Divisional Inspector for Lifeboats in Ireland.

If I noticed one thing over the course of recording the documentary – both at the station in Bundoran and at the base in Dublin – it was the passion everyone had for the RNLI. I guess something must have rubbed off on me as the next time I met Colm I asked him the question “Is there anything I can do here or get involved somehow”. His reply? “I’m glad you asked Shane, we were going to ask you anyway!”. It was written in the stars I guess.

The documentary went out on Ocean FM just after Christmas 2010, I completed the paperwork and was officially registered as shore crew on January 25th 2011. Having no marine background, there was lots to learn. However, it was pointed out to me that quite a large percentage of RNLI volunteers do not come from a marine background. I spent the next few months dividing my time between Dublin and Donegal, attending the station on the weekends and learning the ins and outs of the lifeboat and sea safety. I was also heavily involved in the planning and promotion of the upcoming European Surfing Championships (Eurosurf) which were to be held in Bundoran in September. Everything was accommodated – if I had an assessment I couldn’t make in Bundoran, I’d scoot out the Port Tunnel during lunch break to the base in Swords where Lifeboat Trainer Helena Duggan would run through things with me. I put in the time at the station and learned plenty.

It was during this time that Colm asked me to apply to become Deputy Press Officer. Delighted to be asked, I jumped at the chance. Eurosurf came that September as well as some good PR for the station with the visit of international surfer Bethany Hamilton – the story of her shark attack in the movie “Soul Surfer” was being premiered in Bundoran during the championships, and also another live broadcast for RTE Radio 1 from Damien O’Reilly with “Countrywide” from the station during the event.

The subject of the Soul Surfer movie, Bethany Hamilton, visits the Lifeboat station in 2011.

Following a busy year it was time for a break and two days after the last wave was surfed and the last medal was given out, I was on a plane to Spain for a few days to chill out – potentially to surf but to be honest after 9 months of organising the European Surfing Championships, the last thing I wanted to see was a surfboard. On the last evening there, the phone rang and Colm Hamrogue’s number appeared. He had news. He was moving to the other side of the world (New Zealand) and asked me if I’d be interested in putting my name forward for the position of Lifeboat Press Officer for Bundoran RNLI. I told him I would and I’d talk to him when I got back. Little did we realise that would be the next day as on the way back from the airport I got the call to say the lifeboat had launched and sadly a fisherman had drowned just off the Roguey Rocks. It immediately showed me that a callout could happen at any time under any circumstance.

My first duty as new LPO was to write the press release about me.

Less than 3 months later I would be leaving the big city behind and heading down the N4 for the final time at Christmas 2011 to come home. After eleven years I was disillusioned with radio, I’d had enough of city life and came back to my beloved Bundoran with more time to spend at the lifeboat.

It turns out that being the press officer I also inherited the hosting job for the annual fundraising dinner dance – always a fun job and on this occasion in January 2012, one that took precedence over attending the Donegal Sports Star Awards. I had been nominated for my work on Eurosurf. I didn’t win.

They say “what’s for you won’t pass you by”. I had come home to no job – it just felt right. A few weeks after I’d “left radio” I got the call from Ocean FM to come do their drive time show. My mentor, broadcaster Al Dunne, sent me a text at the time saying “Congratulations on “leaving radio”!!! I’d lasted 6 whole weeks away from it!

Before I could start however, I had something very important to do. That was to attend college – just for a week though – the RNLI College in Poole, Dorset –  where the RNLI carries out a lot of their training. Here I would do my LPO (Lifeboat Press Officer) course – learn more about the RNLI, writing news releases, doing media training and meeting other volunteer press officers from some of the 238 RNLI Lifeboat stations across  Ireland and the UK. 

2012 was also the year of the first soapbox race which I helped to organise with Cormac McGurren and Killian O’Kelly. An event resurrected from 1950s Bundoran when soapboxes made their way down the Astoria Road – this time we did it as a fundraiser and we went big. We drew thousands of people that day. I hosted. It was a LOT of fun! Check out the video!

2012 was also the year I learned a valuable lesson, the hard way, to always send a photo with a press release. We got word just before Christmas this year that someone in a Santa suit was calling to people’s houses pretending to collect money on behalf of the RNLI. Obviously we had to warn people about this so I did my thing and got the message out to the local media. The national media picked up on it too, particularly “The Sun” who in the absence of a related photo, found my RNLI headshot with my big serious head, and put that next to the story with the headline “Bad Santa” – however the way it was printed made ME look like the culprit. I never forgot to send a photo with a press release after that.

ten years with the RNLI

The volunteering and training continued. I eventually got my radio licence too which was a bit ironic when I was on the radio five days a week. You needed one to be licenced to broadcast on the marine radio channels which when on radio duty at the lifeboat station is a necessity. Apparently one of the first times I was on the radio from the station someone on the boat… let’s call him Killian… was heard to utter to his crew mates on board “hey lads it’s Q104” hahahaha. During callouts it was not uncommon for me to be on the news bulletins in the middle of my own show. I wore many hats in those times!

Every so often the press officers from around the country gathered for an LPO conference. This was a great opportunity for us all to meet and catch up with volunteers from all around the country and also our neighbouring (flanking) stations along the coast. In 2014 I was asked to give a presentation to my peers on “getting it right at a local level” – I duly obliged and in the time honoured tradition of “leave them with a laugh”, I recounted my “Bad Santa” press release story at the end of my presentation. It did the trick. Sadly the photos of the Cadbury’s Crème Egg & Spoon Race which happened later that night have mysteriously disappeared from my harddrive.

In 2015 the Bundoran crew was kindly nominated by Cllr Barry O’Neill of Donegal County Council as the Emergency Response Team of the Year at the Community & Council Awards organised by LAMA (Local Authorities Members Association) which we subsequently won. Myself and fellow volunteer crew member Elliot Kearns (who you would have heard in the documentary) were on hand on the night to pick up the award on behalf of the crew. It was to be the first of a few trips to Dublin for lifeboat related events in the years to come.

ten years with the RNLI
LAMA Community and Council Awards 2015 in association with IPB Insurance, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Dublin. January 2015 – copyright Paul Sherwood © 2015.

There was also a bit of hanging about in September of 2015 as our crew conducted some winch training with the Sligo based Rescue 118 helicopter. That Sunday morning at the GAA pitch a number of us were brought up in the helicopter (Sikorsky S-92). However the only way out for us was on the end of a winchman’s rope! Not something I ever thought I’d be able to do (and I’m not great with heights!) but out I shuffled when it came to my turn and I let gravity (and Killian on the end of the rope on the ground!) look after the rest! We were just a couple of metres above the ground – this is normally done out at sea trying to land on a moving boat! Much respect to the CHC/Irish Coast Guard teams!

ten years with the RNLI
Hanging around above Bundoran GAA pitch

At the start of 2016 I got the opportunity to head back to the RNLI college for some refresher training in media interviews and social media. We also got to tour the new All Weather Lifeboat Centre (ALC – they have acronyms for EVERYTHING in the RNLI!) to see the new fleet of Shannon class lifeboats being built – designed by an Irish man (Peter Eyre) and named after an Irish river, it made me very proud to be there.

ten years with the rnli
At the All-Weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole

Around the same time a letter came to the station looking for volunteers to take part in a national parade organised by the Irish Government to commemorate the centenary of the events of 1916. The RNLI was asked to be part of the Irish Emergency Services section of the parade and took our place alongside the Coast Guard, Fire Service, Civil Defence and more. What sounded like fun at the time turned out to be one of the proudest days of my life. You can read about it here.

Not every memory is a pleasant one.  One of the saddest callouts over the past ten years was the tragic loss of Corporal Gavin Carey in a drowning accident at Tullan Strand in August of 2016. Gavin, along with some army pals, had gone for a dip after a day of work at nearby Finner Camp. Due to the massive rip current along the cliffs, Gavin got caught and swept out. Just before 6pm that evening we got the call. I manned the radio at the station while the boat was launched, shore crew were dispatched and Rescue 118 was tasked from Sligo. Eventually it was determined that we were looking for a body. The search was stood down late that evening.

The following morning I started on RTE’s “Morning Ireland” and by the end of the day felt like I’d been on every radio station in the country to give updates. I was conscious that I was speaking on behalf of the station, relaying information on what had happened and had to be sensitive as I was mindful that family and friends of Gavin would likely have been listening and did not want to distress them any further. For the next few days we took it in turns to man the station and launch the boat until Gavin’s body was recovered on the Sunday morning. A sad time for his family but they got closure where many others don’t.

We also assisted in the massive search the following March for the crew of Rescue 116 which had crashed a few days before St Patrick’s Day off the Mayo coast. All four crew on board perished – Captain Dara Fitzpatrick and Pilot Mark Duffy were buried shortly afterwards. Sadly the bodies of winchman Ciarán Smith and winch operator Paul Ormsby were never recovered. This was another very sad time for everyone in search and rescue in Ireland. May they rest in peace.

One of the most poignant photos from those few days is this image of a soldier standing watching at Roguey – pic Chris Murray

The one thing about the RNLI is that there’s always something going on. In 2017 the RNLI’s water safety partnership with the GAA was launched. Two massive community organisations teaming up together to spread the message about respecting the water and its immense power. It was a trip to the Headquarters – Croke Park on this occasion, where they wheeled an Atlantic 85 lifeboat onto the pitch (or at least the edge of the pitch – not even a lifeboat can set foot on the hallowed turf!) and I was delighted to be able to bring some of the players of Bundoran’s Realt Na Mara Senior Team along to help with the launch.

With Realt Na Mara’s Niall Dunne, Paul Delaney and Ferghal McKiernan at Croke Park – pic – Jon Mathers

A few months later the partnership had gained momentum and the RNLI was invited to unveil a flag during the Kerry & Mayo All Ireland Semi Final. You can watch my vlog of the whole thing below!

In 2018 I made a return visit to Croke Park to train as a RNLI/GAA  ambassador with my lifeboat colleague from Bundoran Killian O’Kelly – a man perfectly suited to the job due to his passion for water safety. We were to speak to GAA teams and school groups to emphasise the importance of keeping themselves safe on the water and to assist in spreading this important safety message.

After taking a small break from my role, I was back in the saddle in 2019, ready to spread the good word about the RNLI, our volunteer crew and selfless work they carry out all year round. There was no better way to restart than with an LPO group workshop, this time in Bangor, County Down. These workshops are a great way to catch up with colleagues and also get a refresher on some of the basics – we had a journalist come to speak with us – always good to know what they’re looking for and help each other out.

The LPO group at Bangor in May 2019

As I was getting back into the swing of things, plans were afoot with the GAA to again for us to have another outing at Croke Park to spread the Respect The Water message, this time at the All-Ireland Hurling Semi Final between Wexford and Limerick in August of 2019. To help get the message across, the RNLI invited the McCallion family who had been rescued by our crew at Main Beach in Bundoran in 2018. They, along with me, were to be interviewed on the pitch at half time by Paul Collins – a pretty daunting task for anyone with more than 60,000 pairs of eyes hanging on their every word. A special day for all of us and props to Fianche and the family for accepting our invite to speak and nailing it on the day. I also got to help roll out the flag again on the pitch. Sure I’m a pro at it now!!

With the McCallion family, crew from all over the country and Paul Collins on the pitch at Croke Park

Later that month I organised the first Emergency Services Open Day at the station as part of Bundoran’s Big Week by the Beach. The event was attended by all the local emergency services as well as the RNLI Face to Face team with the Rescue 118 helicopter doing a flypast to complete the event.

Pictured with the crew at the Emergency Services Open Day in August 2019 – pic Pockets Full of Water Productions

Also that summer I took a photography course with my end project of course focussing on the lifeboat. My presentation is still proudly displayed in the lifeboat station.

My exhibition piece was called “The anatomy of a callout” and followed the progress of a shout.

2020 as you can imagine was a different year for all of us – no events, no fundraising but Search and Rescue does not sleep and despite the restrictions, our crew was available 24/7 to help anyone getting into trouble along the coast and in Donegal Bay.

It’s not until you start looking back that you realise what an effect something has had on your life. Like everyone at the station I just get on with it and do what needs to be done. Thanks to everyone who has helped me along the way – the crew at the station, my colleagues in the media and a special shout out to the legends Niamh Stephenson and Nuala McAloon who are always willing to take my call.

I’m incredibly lucky to have experienced everything that I have over the past ten years, had the experiences that I’ve been able to recount here, and immensely proud of the volunteer crew that we have in Bundoran ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to go the aid of someone in trouble. Long may it last.

“Volunteering is at the very core of being human. No one has made it through life without someone else’s help” – Heather French Henry.

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