Caister Lifeboat and Coastwatch Station 

May, 2018

There we were, just over twenty of us, shivering in a biting northerly wind outside a big red and black shed set among the coastal dunes. The sea behind us was blanketed in a mist that almost enveloped the busy line of small breakers struggling to put on a show. Was this really early evening in the middle of the merry month of May? It was, but we were in the only corner of England that had that day, and for several before, forgotten to be sunny and warm.

It was from this shed that the old Caister Lifeboat would have burst, sending its volunteer crew, all but blinded by the mist, boring into one of the most dangerous stretches of sea around our shores.

Derek George, a man who lives and breathes lifeboats, as has his family for generations before, completed his potted history of the origins of the lifeboat service and let us inside. Then we heard the remarkable story of how the newly formed independent lifeboat organisation (the first in the country) acquired its first inshore lifeboat after the RNLI took Caister’s lifeboat away. It involved the local secondary head teacher, apparently with little notice, leading his entire barely prepared contingent of children on a fund-raising walk to Norwich. They did it, they raised the money and they bought the boat! It became the only independently owned lifeboat in the country.

This was followed by the acquisition of an all-weather lifeboat retired from the fleet into private ownership. It had proved unsatisfactory for that owner’s ambitions and was offered for sale. This lifeboat proved to be a perfect solution to the needs of the new Caister organisation, as it was the same class as the RNLI boat they had previously operated. However, when the first payment had to be made the crew had to lend the charity £50 each of their own money! 

We were allowed to clamber about that lifeboat, marvelling at both the beauty of its build and the almost total lack of protection its volunteer crew was provided. At the same time, taking turn and turnabout, others of us climbed the steep stairways to find another set of volunteers - members of Coastwatch who scan the seas looking out for vessels in difficulty. Now, I am presuming that Coastwatch people were there, reckoning that they would have been waiting for the mist to rise – just in case. Later we learned that the government’s Border Force have co-opted Coastwatch also to look out for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. Every morning they search the beach and dunes – looking for clues and contraband, I presume.

Following this, we viewed the present lifeboat. A huge and astonishing vehicle. Unsinkable, rights itself in 13 seconds if overturned, powered by water jets, the fastest lifeboat in the U.K. The lifeboat, its unbelievable huge haulage tractor, the inshore boat and the enormous shed in which they are housed have been provided and are maintained by voluntary donations and work. Over £180,000 is needed every year. You really must go and see it all.

Derek had told us earlier of the hundreds of lives that have been saved over the years by these and earlier lifeboats. Something like two lives for every three callouts. He ended by talking of another cost – twenty local men who have died over the years saving the lives of others during the recorded history of the service still individually remembered – one of whom was Derek’s own great-grandfather.   

Noel Mitchell, with help from Derek George



(Above: Caister boathouse and Coastwatch Station)
(Below: Modern lifeboats)

Modern lifeboats

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