October 3, 2008

Up the down, heroes on the side

Filed under: England — sensel @ 10:27 am

Had a terrific walk today through a very atmospheric chine (on our planet, we’d call it a narrow erosion ravine, though one filled with great gnarled trees, vines, and unusual plants – the sort of place where you expect a toucan to land on a branch and start talking to you – and then along the beach and esplanade for a few miles through typical British beach holiday-land: rainbow beach huts, pinball machines, fake fun, and a universe of ice cream (much of which I tried to ignore, focusing on the beach and the waves). And then up a big chalk down (up the down? gotta wonder why they’re called downs, since they definitely go up). The views were spectacular, the weather briskly great, and the sea hypnotic, reassuring, eternal. It’s paler green here than the Pacific, and clean, and the seafoam at high water, gleaming and backlit by the sun, looked just like silk. I wanted to pet it.

Among the things I was reminded of, passing a lifeboat station, were the RNLI stations I saw in Cornwall. From my American perspective, I think of lifeboats as something the Coast Guard (read: government) provides. Here, they have the Royal National Lifeboat Institute, a fully volunteer, 100% donation funded organization with a zillion operations around UK coastlines. They do amazing work out of the goodness of their hearts and, I suspect, a very firm connection to people making their living from and thus risking their lives regularly on the sea. One of the newer lifeboat stations I saw near the Lizard had the boat station, oh, 200 feet up a very steep cove, with a long, long ramp out to the water. You could go down about 150 steps (with a sign at the top warning you that you’ll have to come back up, don’t forget) to a midpoint and tour a mini-museum in their radio office, and they had lots of historical photos. Amazing. When they’re scrambled, it’s of course mostly during bad weather, as in gale force winds, and it’s very hard to get a small boat past the 20-foot breakers crashing in. Used to be, it took 10 or 20 men in the shallows with long poles, practically drowning in the surf, to push the lifeboat out past the breakers before it could get underway to the rescue.(And in the days where they used oars instead of motors, for which there were a few photos or artists’ renditions, I don’t know how they did it at all. We’re talking manly men, here, obviously.) In this modern station, when they deploy the boat (which I’m guessing was probably a 20- or 24-foot vessel or so, spiffy and modern, this one, with an 8-man crew), it shoots down the ramp – maybe a 40 degree angle? –like a one-way rollercoaster and crashes into the water beyond the worst of the breakers. It must be thrilling and scary to make that ride, not knowing if you’re coming back. Not too many years ago, a lifeboat on a rescue was thrown by the 30-foot swells into the boat they were trying to save and all hands went down, not only on the sinking boat but also the 8 people (unpaid volunteers, remember) on the lifeboat.

I know very little about boating, but even if I did, I don’t think I’d make a good volunteer for the RNLI, because reading some of their rescue reports, I’d be hitting the rescued parties with a bat and then drowning them myself. It sounds like a statistically significant percentage have been idiots out beyond their depth in weather they had no business boating in. The RNLI guys are saints for rescuing them.

Had a couple of nights of windy weather here, with the accompanying surf pounding boom, boom, boom against the sea wall all night long – my little rental is not very far from the wall – and it made me wonder what really bad weather here is like. I’d kinda like to find out, but I’m kinda afraid to!

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