Leonard Lawson, Portaferry Lifeboat Station
Karen Brown talks to a founding member of Portaferry Lifeboat Station
Lenny, I understand you are a founding member of the Portaferry Lifeboat Station. How did the first lifeboat come to be in the town, and who was involved in the foundation of the Station?
Initially I was involved through Portaferry Sailing Club, who had great concern to establish a lifeboat in the area. At the start local fishermen looked after themselves and were able to carry out rescues, but as time went on the fishing boats died out and the only boat able to rescue was the Portaferry ferry boat. This was just an open motor boat, and increasingly it was less and less available.
There was a coastguard officer called John Travis who used to meet with us every Sunday morning for a weekly catch-up, which he called a ‘pint of local knowledge’, and he expressed that he was similarly concerned about inadequate cover for Strangford Lough. Around the same time a container vessel went ashore at Angus Rock, and the Newcastle and Cloughy / Portavogie lifeboats were both launched. The crew were taken off, but the lifeboats refused to come in during the hours of darkness.
This raised more concern that we weren’t getting cover. Together with John Travis, we put reports and letters in to the Coastguard and Lifeboats, and low and behold we got a reply. I was approached by the Inspector of lifeboats: ‘If I was to ask you now to supply us with twelve lifeboat members could you do it?’ - I said yes. Within a very short time we had a lifeboat here on trial.
What is the service area for the Portaferry Station, and what are the hazards particular to the area?
Strangford Lough is our main area, but we also serve out into the Irish Sea, northwards as far as Burial Island off Ballyhalbert, and in a southerly direction towards St. John’s Point near Killough. The main hazards are the rocks and pladdies within the Lough.
These are dangerous small reefs, only slightly covered by water. The Bar itself has very treacherous seas, especially if there is a south easterly wind and an ebb tide. This can make it very dangerous for boats coming in and for the lifeboat trying to carry out the rescue. The strong tides within the Lough are not so much a hazard to the lifeboat, as to visiting boatmen.
Can you tell me about any outstanding rescues?
Yes, one night during a Remembrance Service, maroons went off, and three of the crew, Desmond Rogers, Billy Ellison and Francis Rogers went out to a yacht off Jane’s rock. It was blowing force eight, possibly nine in the gusts. In the pitch darkness they got to the casualty, but because of the heavy seas they couldn’t return to the Station and had to go to Kirkubbin Sailing Club.
Anxious to get the boat back to the Station as soon as possible, we drove a lorry down to the Club and lifted the boat on, for driving back to the Portaferry station. Desmond Rogers got a bronze medal and the other two crew got a special vellum.
Also, early one morning I was involved in the rescue of the Portavogie fishing boat ‘Vortrecker’ which had collided with another fishing boat. The four-man crew had about a minute to get in to the life raft which we found bobbing on the Irish sea. Probably the most ‘famous’ person we have saved was Joey Dunlop who was on his way to the Isle of Man when the boat hit a rock at the entrance to the Lough.
Does the Portaferry Station require a particular type of boat or navigational equipment?
Yes, it requires a boat with a shallow draft for the mud flats etc, and to get quite close to any casualties. We also need a boat with a fast response because of the strong tides and the distances covered. But also the boat has to be very capable, because of the treacherous seas at the Bar - It has to be able to take a real pounding from the waves. GPS has been invaluable to us, particularly in poor visibility, getting us within three or four metres of the casualty.
How many people man the lifeboat?
There are three of a crew at any particular time, although we have a pool of twenty two people including helpers, tractor drivers and so on in order to have twenty four hour cover.
How long does it take the lifeboat to respond to a call and what is the record time for a launch?
Each crew member has a pager and when that goes off, we can recon to have the boat in the water within three to four minutes. The record time I was involved in myself. It was a bit of a cheat as we were just back from an exercise when the secretary came running down the quay to say that we were required at a boat. So we just went straight into reverse and away.
The current boat is called ‘Blue Peter V’. Can you tell me a little about the name?
Blue Peter V came from the BBC children’s programme. They were collecting money for four boats, but raised enough money for five. They put out a request on the programme for applications for a good home. My mother at the time (who was famous for phoning up radio stations for various things), picked up the phone and told them that the Portaferry Station was trying to raise money for a boat. To our amazement we got the boat!
Can you tell me a little about current plans for the station?
At present we are raising funds for a bigger station house and boat. The Lifeboat Guild specialises in raising funds, running a shop at weekends and in the summer and hosting fund-raising events. Our Easter bank holiday weekend collection and the support of Kirkistown Golf Club are also invaluable.
Mr Leonard Lawson is a founding member of Portaferry Lifeboat, a founding member of Portaferry Sailing Club, and the author of two books, Twenty Five Walks in Down District (Edinburgh: Stationery Press, 1998), and a book celebrating the twenty five year anniversary of Portaferry Sailing Club.