It’s pretty cosy inside the Penarth lifeboat station, especially with a mug of tea to hand. Outside it’s dark you can’t see the sea. It’s hard to imagine being out there on the waves, with gale-force winds rocking your boat from side-to-side.
But facing storms is all part of the job. This month the RNLI recognised the bravery of lifeboat volunteer Aran Pitters, after he spent five hours battling to save a stranded yachtsman in May last year. Aran will receive the RNLI thanks inscribed on vellum, alongside his colleague Jason Dunlop, later in the summer.
“I was supposed to be sailing that day in the morning but we called it off because the conditions were really bad and I was a bit aggrieved,” said Aran, who owns his own laser dinghy. “Everyone said ‘you wanted to sail and you got it’ but it was a bit different from what I wanted.”
The seven-metre yacht, sailing from Watchet to Penarth, had been caught by the tide and was dangerously close to the reef at Lavernock point. There was only one man on board.
“He couldn’t leave the tiller and the only option was for someone to go on board and take over sailing,” said Aran. “I just told him to go back down into the cockpit and put a life-jacket on as he had got caught out.”
Shortly after Aran and Jason were joined by two members of the Barry lifeboat crew. With a strong north-east swell, they were unable to sail against the tide into Penarth and had to sail across to Barry Harbour.
“It was probably the most challenging situation I’ve ever been involved in,” said Aran, who has been working for the lifeboat crew for nine years and who has his own IT business in Penarth.
The RNLI also awards gold, silver and bronze medals but these are extremely rare. The vellum award has only been awarded twice in Wales since 2000.
“I’m proud and privileged as well for everyone, the whole crew. Although there were four of us on the boat everyone was involved, it was a team effort. Without their support it never would have happened. It’s nice that the station has been recognised.”
Deputy manager Laurie Pavelin works with the Lifeboat operational manager, Phil Dutfield, to manage a crew of 30 volunteers split into three groups. Each member carries a pager and can be called out at any time.
“It’s down to everyone playing their part,” said Laurie. “When you’re afloat you’re talking about life and death circumstances sometimes.”
Everyone goes out fully equipped, as crews can be out searching for three hours before a fresh team replaces them. To help cold and wet conditions each member wears a fleecy suit and a waterproof suit, with rubber seals on the arms and neck, over the top.
They carry a life jacket with a light, day and night flares, a knife and a gas canister. “Even if you end up separated from the boat you’d have every man and his dog looking for you,” said Aran.
“The most dangerous thin with sailing is entrapment, lines and debris can drag you under. You expect rough conditions, that’s what you’re here for. The thought of what could go wrong is more worrying.”
The station is home to two boats, The Connie Dains and The Maureen, which were both donated to the station. An inflated lifeboat, Connie can operate in shallow water. She carries a crew of three who kneel on the rubber floor. Maureen is a more comfortable ride and can seat a crew of four.
No sailing experience is necessary to join the team but most team members are used to working on boats. Volunteer Mark Bow is a fireman at Ely Station and before this he spent six years in the Royal Navy.
“Your own safety is the most important thing,” he said. “If you’re putting yourself in danger that won’t be helpful.
“It’s like a family here. There’s a lot of people from different occupations and backgrounds all coming together for a common goal.”
After five years of volunteering Mark is an RLNI veteran and says he enjoys his time at the station even more than his day job. “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “It’s the camaraderie and knowing you’re doing something that’s making a difference.”