We finish up our story of Bursledon Brickworks Museum volunteer Bob Palmer, with a quick…
Fry & Kent Estate Agent director, has not so secret ‘RNLI’ life.
Neil has committed a large part of his personal and business time to being a volunteer for the Portsmouth RNLI Lifeboat crew. Without people like Neil, many more lives would be lost at sea. We owe him, and lifeboat crew members around the country, a huge debt of gratitude.
You obviously live in Portsmouth because of your work with the RNLI. Is the family from here?
Yes, and I was born here. Dad was in the Royal Navy, but I was sent to boarding school at quite a young age to avoid the upheaval of moving each time his posting changed. It was dad who introduced me to water sports. When I was about five or six, he used to take me out sailing with him. I got my first dinghy, which I was able to sail on my own, when I was seven. I was also taken out yacht racing a few times. That cemented my interest in water sports.
When I was fifteen, dad had a posting out in the Caribbean [St Lucia] running the Marine Police Unit, and I was lucky enough to join him out there for a while. Seeing how keen I was at sailing, mum and dad bought me a laser class sailing dinghy. Then I got into racing yachts courtesy of a former employer and friend Martin Banfield, through which knowledge of general seamanship increased vastly, mostly at speed! It was whilst I was out there that I caught the bug of windsurfing, water skiing and pretty much all related water sports really both under it and on it.
Did you sail competitively?
Sort of. All the hotels used to hold a sailing regatta on a Sunday, which was mainly for the tourists. Because I had local knowledge, the light airs and the fickle winds etc, I used to win every time. So every single Sunday I would turn up, go sailing for forty minutes, and come back with a bottle of champagne. [LOL]
Do you still own a yacht?
No, but I do have an eight metre ‘RIB’, which I use for water skiing and fishing.
A rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) or rigid-inflatable boat (RIB) is a light-weight, high-performance and high-capacity boat, constructed with a solid, shaped hull and flexible tubes at the gunwale. The design is stable and seaworthy. The inflatable collar allows the vessel to maintain buoyancy, even if a large quantity of water is shipped aboard, due to bad sea conditions. The RIB is a development of the inflatable boat.
RP. Do you compete at water skiing?
NM. No, it’s only for recreation. I belong to the Langstone Harbour Water Skiers Association, which I joined this summer. They have a blue pontoon in the middle of Langstone harbour which we use for BBQ’s etc.
Bricks and Mortar
RP. You’re currently one of two directors for the one of the Southsea branches of Fry & Kent Estate agents. What sort of career path have you taken to be where you are now?
My first job after finishing my A levels, was as a trainee hotel manager in the Caribbean. I’d deferred entry to University to work out there, because I thought that the experience would be more valuable. When we came back, about a year later, I found work with a local estate agent/building society. During the next twenty plus years, I gained experience and responsibility through working with various estate agents in Hampshire and the surrounding area. Fry & Kent had been chasing me for a few years to join them and, eventually, when I felt that the time was right, I made the move.
RP. When was that?
I joined them the day after the American 9/11 twin towers disaster . Six years later, after being made a director I bought some company shares. I saw it as a long-term investment, because my new role would enable me to be involved in the company’s future business strategy. With the dramatic turn in the market in 2007 the Company faced some tough decisions which at the time seemed daunting but survival is a great motivator!
All at sea
RP. How has the business reacted to your involvement with the RNLI?
The other Director, Gary, and the rest of the team, have been very supportive. We’ve been very pleased, as a company, to be able to do something positive for the community. It’s a huge commitment from the team. Whenever I’m called away, they pick up the pieces.
RP. That’s one of the most valuable things that a business can give, somebody’s time.
We see it as a really good way to give something back. As you know, the Portsmouth crew struggle for day time cover. So the fact that I can be available at such short notice is invaluable. With the exception of holidays away, there’s not been many shouts that I haven’t been involved in this year. The public have been very understanding as well. There have been times when my pager has gone off, when I’ve been out valuing peoples’ properties, and I’ve had to drop everything and head for the station.
I’ve only ever had one complaint about it, and that was from a woman who was extremely deaf and didn’t understand what was going on. Of course, I didn’t have the luxury of taking the time to explain, so I had to apologise after the event. She was fine when she knew the reason [LOL]. There have been times when I arrived at the front door with a client and, before we’ve even got past ‘hello’, I’ve had to apologise and leave. Fortunately, without exception, they’ve all been happy to arrange a follow-up visit.
RP. I guess Portsmouth’s seagoing heritage means that most folks will appreciate the role that the RNLI has to play.
Exactly. In fact, in March of this year, I was sat here (Neil’s Fry & Kent office) with my business partner Gary and our bookkeeper, when my pager went off. I made my apologies and left for the [lifeboat] station. The shout was for a woman who was stuck in the mud up to her chest, with the tide coming in. Obviously there was no time to waste because, in those situations, every second counts. The time from leaving the office to my return was about 1hr 10 mins in total.
RP. Good grief!
As I walked through the door, the meeting was still going on. They couldn’t believe what had been achieved in such a short space of time. I’d driven to the station; we’d launched the boat, performed the rescue, returned to the station, washed down and refueled the boat ready to go again, and then driven back to the office. Not to be blasé about it, but it’s what we do and, to be honest, the impact of being involved in a rescue like that doesn’t really sink in at the time.
RP. I bet that stopped the conversation.
Yes, they were somewhat taken aback [LOL]
In at the deep end
RP. You volunteered back in 2011, what did your training involve?
Initially I had ‘on station’ training, but within about two months of joining, I was given my pager [A pager is given when a volunteer is deemed to have reached a level of competency that allows them to be part of the crew without endangering themselves or others). This is unusual, but because they were hard pressed to get daytime cover, myself and another volunteer, Nick, were given them early on. I was given the pager on a Sunday and, Monday morning, first thing, it was triggered. I went down to the station on my very first shout, which turned out to be a call to recover a dead body in the harbour.
On the Friday of that same week, I went out on another shout with three other guys, including Nick again, to a yacht in distress. At 10:00 that morning, two teenagers had bought a yacht and taken it to sea in bad weather. The chap who sold them the boat, had seen them getting into difficulty, almost immediately, and called us.
Everything went wrong on that shout that could possibly go wrong, but I’m really glad that it did!
Nick and I hadn’t been there long enough to know what we were doing properly. The fact that some things went wrong, that could have been avoided, brought it home to me, hard and fast, that this isn’t a game; this is for real. I made the commitment to myself, there and then, that I never wanted to feel so vulnerable and, let’s be honest, something of a liability, ever again. So, for the last two years, I’ve put as much time as possible into doing every bit of training that’s available, whether that’s on station training or offsite courses, and taken every opportunity to get on the boat, to ensure that I was familiar with everything.
That experience was a big wake up call for me. Yes, I’d done a lot of sailing; yes, I could drive a power boat; yes, I could do XYZ, but the skills that I needed to be effective on a lifeboat, were a whole new skill set.
RP. You previous experience must count for something though?
Of course and, being slightly older, I can bring other things to the party, so to speak. My background of leading and managing teams has given me the wisdom, if you can call it that, of knowing when to keep quiet and just listen. The RNLI is an established organisation with a lot of experience to pass on. It’s not about me. Any instruction is usually for either a lifeboatman’s (or woman’s) own safety, or pertinent to those being rescued, so it’s prudent to take heed.
The RNLI was founded on 4 March 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, with Royal Patronage from George IV. It was given the prefix “Royal” and its current name in 1854 by Queen Victoria.
RP. How different is driving a lifeboat to, for example, a power boat or sailing your own yacht?
Completely different. Basically, the conditions that we are often required to drive a lifeboat in, are the very conditions that the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) would tell you to avoid. Any sensible person should be at home tucked up in bed or down the pub [LOL]. I went from thinking that I was a very competent sailor to realising that there were areas in my knowledge where I had huge holes and a complete lack of experience.
RP. Have you been to the Poole training centre (RNLI HQ and primary training facilities)?
Yes, I’ve been there twice in the last year, actually. The first time was for the ‘Crew’ course, and the second for the ‘Helmsman’ course. It was a bit unusual in that I did the Crew course in May and then the Helm’s course in the September.
RP. Wow, that’s quick
The trainers were somewhat shocked at my early return. It’s mainly due to the combination of the stations needs and my specific background experience [LOL]. But it is unusual.
The Helmsman is a volunteer who is in charge of the inshore lifeboat during launching, at sea, and when it is being recovered, to make sure it is ready for the next rescue. The helmsman is responsible for the safety of the crew on board and for everything that happens during a rescue. They are in command on in-shore vessels.
RP. It shows what can be achieved.
Very much so. My commitment to the training is directly as a result of that first shout, where I really didn’t know what I was doing. Without that experience, although it’s not something that I would recommend for everyone, obviously, I don’t think that I would have had the necessary drive to learn. I was chuffed to bits that my first shout as a trainee helm was the 100th shout for the station this year, where we rescued three people off of a fishing boat.
RP. A textbook story
Yeah, I was very very pleased with that.
I’m pleased to have found, in the RNLI, the passion to work as a team. You have to work together or it just doesn’t work.
RP. Can anyone become a volunteer?
Anyone can put themselves forward. There is a certain level of fitness that’s necessary because of the physical aspects of some of the tasks. We need to be able to pull people, fully clothed and wet, for example, out of the water. That’s not an easy thing to do. You also have to be willing to accept being told what to do, mainly for safety reasons. Being open-minded and having the right attitude counts for a lot.
For my very first training session, I was cleaning floors, vacuuming stairs and polishing brass. When the boat came back that evening, my task was to dry it off with a chamois leather cloth. I joined in early March, so it was freezing cold in the Boathouse. This was somewhat ironic because, earlier that day, I’d sat in the warmth and comfort of my car, with its heated seat, listening to the CD player, whilst some guys did a hand car wash for me [LOL].RP. Puts it all in perspective.
It does. That was another good learning point.
Weight and see
RP. Do you follow any sort of fitness program yourself?
I do quite a bit of running. But that started as the result of another RNLI related experience. I had just returned home, after a seven hour drive, from Yorkshire. I switched my pager on and was called out within seconds of turning it on. I drove down to the station, and it turned out that there was a report of somebody missing on Hayling Island’s, East Winner sandbank.
East Winner sandbank is popular with fishermen. However, the tide can come in very fast and the stretch nearest the shore fills before the rest of the bank, potentially cutting you off from the mainland.
There was still about four-foot of water across the top of the sandbank and the Helm asked for someone to run across to check for any bodies. Being the new boy, and all eager, I volunteered. But, of course, I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be to run through waist deep water in a dry suit, on a warm July evening, when it was still about 24 degrees. I got to the other side, where the boat was waiting, and I could hardly breathe, let alone stand. As soon as they were happy that nobody had been found, they were all taking the Micky out of me because they knew what it was going to be like. It was at that point that I realised I needed to get fit. So I made a big change to my lifestyle, took up running, watched what I ate and cut back on the wine etc. I’ve lost four stone since I started the new lifestyle.
RP. How often are you on call; is there a roster?
No, you let the team know when you can be called upon, rather than them asking you. We have a smart phone App that shows crew availability, just for our station. We all log in when we’re available and everyone can see, at a glance, who’s around. When the shout comes in, you make your way to the station at the best possible speed.
RP. Is it first come first served?
It depends on the circumstances. If there was somebody drowning in front of the lifeboat station, you would take whoever was there. If there is more time, as a helm, I choose the best balance of skills to meet the situation.
RP. So you could have twenty people turn up?
We’ve had both extremes. One Saturday this summer, at 02:45 in the morning, only four crew turned up. Other times, the entire station crew has turned out.
Fishing for an ambulance
RP. Do you have any specialist skills, other than being a qualified Helm?
I’m what we call Casualty Care trained. An advanced form of first aid, which is a three-day course held on the station.
RP. I’m guessing that it’s proved useful?
Actually, this summer (2013) it really came into its own. I was down by Langstone Harbour, fishing from my boat, with my next door neighbour and wife. I was monitoring channel 16, as I always do, when I heard a Mayday go out from a yacht. It gave its position as being just off Southsea sea front, so I decided to respond. I asked my neighbour if he would be happy to return my boat to the marina, when he’d finished fishing, as I had to rush off on an emergency call. He said that he would, so I rapidly stowed my gear and headed off to the station. I climbed up onto the pontoon and, as I was sprinting down the road, my pager went off. When we launched, I had the bizarre experience of driving past my own boat going in the opposite direction [LOL].
Channel 16 VHF is a radio frequency on the marine VHF radio band. It is used for shipping and maritime purposes, to call up ships and shore stations, and as an international distress frequency.
The call turned out to be for a man and another male friend. The older chap seemed very confused and began acting very strangely. He was starting to turn a strange colour, so I encouraged him go and lie down on his bunk. It was then I noticed that there was water spurting out from underneath the stairs. Of course, my first thoughts were that we were starting to sink. Luckily, upon further investigation, it turned out to be just some loose water that was spinning around in the footwell by the fly shaft of the engine.
I need to call an ambulance. Wait a minute, I am the ambulance.
Now that what I thought of as the immediate danger was past, I went back to check on the gentleman on his bunk. It became obvious that he was deteriorating rapidly. I was thinking to myself (expletive), I really need to call an ambulance, but I can’t. I’m on a big lumpy sea, on a yacht that’s being towed by an inshore rescue lifeboat, it’s just me. It was then that the training kicked in. I suddenly went into automatic mode and began to treat him in exactly the way that we had covered on the Casualty Care course. The jump in thinking went from ‘I need to call an ambulance’ to, ‘Wait a minute, I am the ambulance’.
RP. That must have really bolstered your confidence for any possible future incidents?
Yes, it was another milestone for me. We radioed ahead for an ambulance to be waiting on the jetty, for when we pulled up alongside, but my training was exactly what was needed.
RP. Your social life must be all over the place. I’m sure you’ve had to leave social occasions in a rush.
Oh better than that. Once,I was cooking for a dinner party of eight people. I’d prepared a beef wellington earlier in the day and was about to get stuck in on making the starter. Id found a fancy recipe on the Internet which needed asparagus, mozzarella cheese, some prosciutto ham and something else. I’d, literally, just got it all out on the side in the kitchen, when my pager went off. I knew that we were short-handed with crew that day, so I felt duty bound to go, because I was available. I told the friend, who was staying with me at the time, that I’d been called out. He said. “But you can’t, what about dinner?” I said‚ “Sorry, but I have to go.” and ran off into the night to attend the shout. All the way back, after a successful rescue, I was thinking, “I wonder what will be for dinner?” Needless to say, it wasn’t what I had planned, as they had no idea what the recipe was! [LOL]
RP. What’s next with the RNLI? More of the same?
Yeah, and because those ‘baptism of fire’ experiences are still fresh, they will be useful to help with training newcomers. I know exactly how they feel when they go out for the first time and, more importantly perhaps, what their training priorities might need to be.
RP. Is there a training schedule that everyone follows?
We have a station Learning Training Co-ordinator [LTC], who has an assistant. Between them, they put together the training sessions and organise the necessary assessments. There’s a Divisional Area Trainer [DAT] Inspector who comes down to the station, and he will assess each of us individually. It’s all part of what’s called Competence-based training or CoBT, and it covers a wide variety of tasks and skill sets.
From RNLI web site training page:
Lifeboat crew are trained so they can ‘competently’ perform the tasks and, when they have been assessed as ‘competent’, they are defined as ‘efficient and pertinently proficient’. individuals’.
The RNLI provides first-class training and equipment, guidance and support. Training is an ongoing process for the duration of a lifeboat crew member’s service. It is not the kind of job where you ever know it all.
Sing for your supper
RP. What’s the social aspect of the RNLI like?
Well I’m actually the social secretary for the station. A position that I was voted into in my absence [LOL]. We have a fund-raising charity ball next March. I’ve organised some BBQs during the summer. A big one was held on Sinah Sands [Langstone Harbour], where we invited the Eastney Cruising Association to join in. They are big supporters of the RNLI and have donated quite a lot of money to us over the years. That was an interesting logistical experience. When I dreamt up the idea, I hadn’t actually considered that everything had to be transported by boat. Three BBQs, seventy people, food, drink and all the equipment necessary for the game of cricket that was part of the event. So that was fun. We’ve had spit roasts, curry evenings with a band. Lots of bits and pieces.
I’m not scared of the sea, but singing in public is not my idea of fun.
RP. What are some of the highs and lows that you’ve had?
The worst was probably having to stand up in Portsmouth Cathedral and sing the ‘lifeboat song’, without any warning.
RP. On your own?
No, thankfully. We had a visit to the station by the lifeboat vicar. He had us do some singing, nobody had told me what it was all about. I was thinking, this is a bit flipping odd, but didn’t want to sound like a nay sayer, so kept quiet and joined in with everyone else. Anyway, it was announced that they needed volunteers for the lifeboat carol service at the cathedral. Ahhh, so that’s what it was all about. So I, dutifully, volunteered.
We’re all in the church and, suddenly, everyone starts filing down to the front. I was like, where are you guys going? They said “Come on,” and pulled me along with them. So there I was like a fish out of water singing the lifeboat song to the congregation. [LOL]. Not something I want to repeat in a hurry! That’s been my worst moment. I’m not scared of the sea, but singing in public is not my idea of fun
RP. Best moment?
I think that is still to come. I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve been involved in so far, really, all of it has been such an incredible experience. And you get to play with helicopters, what’s not to enjoy?
One of the family
RP. Is there anything that you would like to add or give a mention to?
I’d just like to say a big ‘thank you’ to the senior crew down at the Portsmouth station, who have taken the time to train us; me especially. People give up a lot of their time to ensure that we have a top class standard of training, without which we couldn’t operate as successfully as we do. Wherever I go in the country and meet fellow volunteers, we immediately have that bond of a shared experience. There’s an unbelievable range of people, from all walks of life, that hold this organisation together. It’s done the world of good for my business as well. We’re honoured to be able to support the community in this way, and I’m very proud to be counted as one of the family.
None of this would have been possible without the forbearance of my partner, and the sacrifices of the times we should have spent together. Luckily, originating from the lifeboating town of Whitby, she understands the necessity of training to keep everyone safe. Not forgetting of course my parents and brother, who have not seen a lot of me the last couple of years!
RP. I would like to say a personal thank you to the crew and staff at the Portsmouth Lifeboat Station, and Fry & Kent Southsea branch, for allowing me the time to interview and photograph Neil and associated RNLI equipment. A special ‘shout’ (pun intended) to Aaron, the station Press Officer, for assistance over and above the call of duty. Cheers Aaron.
Web Links and References of interest
RNLI: Portsmouth Lifeboat Station
RNLI: Royal National Lifeboat Institution
Royal Yachting Association
Fry & Kent Estate Agents
Langstone Harbour Water Skiers Association
Eastney Cruising Association