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Loch Ness RNLI pit crew poised for emergencies 24 hours a day

By John Davidson

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The Loch Ness RNLI volunteers at this summer's Glenurquhart Games in Drumnadrochit.
The Loch Ness RNLI volunteers at this summer's Glenurquhart Games in Drumnadrochit.

Volunteer rescuers are keen to welcome new recruits to fulfil a range of roles on and off shore.

Speed is of the essence when somebody on or in the water needs the urgent assistance of the RNLI’s volunteer rescuers. It may not be out at sea like most of the lifeboats, but the Loch Ness vessel is on hand 24 hours a day to get help to anybody in trouble along the length of this huge body of water.

Some people might question why a freshwater loch has its own RNLI station, but with a year-round temperature of just six degrees centigrade and a quickly changing micro-climate, not to mention a regular influx of visitors who don’t know the area well, the loch presents a few hidden dangers.

Tourists are drawn to Loch Ness from all over the world, but not all of them are aware of the power of the estimated 263 billion cubic feet of H2O it holds.

Joanna Stebbings receives her jubilee medal from Allan Durning.
Joanna Stebbings receives her jubilee medal from Allan Durning.

That’s where the RNLI Loch Ness team comes into play. But getting those experienced hands on board involves more than you might think, with a 24-hour pit crew in action behind the scenes.

“It’s the same as a formula one driver,” said helm Kieron Tarling, who has been a volunteer with the Loch Ness team since 2018. “The bigger part of the team is actually outside of the car. The RNLI isn’t just about people who jump into dry suits and zoom out into the loch or into the sea.

“Everything from DLAs, launchers and then all the support around the fundraising – all of it matters. We wouldn’t be able to go out on the loch if we didn’t have the kit and the funding behind us to do it.”

A DLA is a deputy launch authority – one must be on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and their role is to ensure there is always a crew within reach of the lifeboat station ready to drop everything if the call comes in.

Joanna Stebbings is the longest-serving volunteer with the Loch Ness branch. She began as a fundraiser and has been a deputy launch authority before progressing to lifeboat operations manager. She explains that you don’t need to be an expert to join the RNLI as a volunteer, even as a crew member.

The Loch Ness lifeboat on the water in front of the station.
The Loch Ness lifeboat on the water in front of the station.

“We train them from knowing nothing all the way up,” she says. “You may not have ex fishermen. We don’t have that kind of community here on Loch Ness, but we’ll train them – as long as they’re not scared of the water, we’ll take them!

“It’s joining the whole team, and the team is branch and crew – without the branch side of things the RNLI can’t run.”

As well as being involved in fundraising, the branch also looks after the station and provides support, as well as educating people about how to respect the water and what to do in an emergency.

Water safety officer Sandy Hart explains: “Each station has its own plan, they evaluate the shouts over the last so many years and look at the areas they need to concentrate on, the people they need to target.

“You want to get the general water safety message out there but concentrating on the ones that are relevant to our area. Here, most of our shouts are holiday boats, or kayakers and canoes.

“While the motor cruisers are probably the bulk of call outs, they are not such high risk because generally they can afford to wait for help to get to them – they are not going to sink. But if you’ve got somebody in an open canoe, once it starts to take in water or it capsizes, if they are not close enough to get to the side, they can get cold, so they need to get help quite quickly.”

The temperature of the water in Loch Ness is one of the main dangers each volunteer mentions, but there is one other factor that comes up repeatedly.

Craig Turner, another of the Loch Ness crew’s helms, explains: “People need to understand the conditions that Loch Ness can throw at them. It can be a lovely blue-sky day and in two hours’ time the wind has picked up and it’s blowing several knots in the wrong direction – if you’re out in your kayak, you’re going to struggle to get home.”

The team are pleased that the vast majority of shouts have what they call a “happy ending”, but they are in need of more assistance to help keep the rescuers at the ready, particularly in the form of DLAs and fundraisers.

To find out more about volunteering with the RNLI, visit RNLI.org/volroles or email Loch-Ness@rnli.org.uk

Earlier this year, four of the Loch Ness volunteers - Joanna Stebbings, Neil Stebbings, Craig Turner and Linda Izquierdo-Ross - were presented with the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee medals.

As a token of thanks, 4500 RNLI volunteers and frontline staff were awarded the jubilee medal in recognition of the 65,886 lives the charity saved during the Queen’s 70-year reign.

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