Magnet Meets… Nick Gentry, Lifeboatman
Nick Gentry was just nine when he had his first taste of going to sea on his father’s open fishing boat. He spent much of his childhood and teenage years in and around the marina at Newhaven, watching the lifeboat crew in action. At the age of twenty he joined the launching crew and had his first call-out in 1982 while still on the waiting list for full crew membership. He became an official Royal National Lifeboat Institute crew member the following year. Nick is now fifty-eight, has put in thirty-five years voluntary service with the RNLI and gained Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals along the way.
“It’s a huge commitment, but completely worth it,” says Nick. “My wife has been incredibly supportive. We are on call at all times, so I have had to abandon her midway through dinner in a restaurant on more than one occasion.”
I consider it a real privilege being a lifeboatman; on an amazing boat, doing things you’d never normally do
Nick is now the training coordinator for Newhaven RNLI, helping the next generation of lifeboat crew members to learn the ropes. Recruitment is an increasing challenge, as work and family commitments leave people with little spare time. Newhaven RNLI has seventeen crew members, but could ideally do with nearer thirty. The team is currently all male, but a female paramedic is about to join them – bringing a valuable extra skill-set on board.
“You don’t need a maritime background, or even to be able to swim,” explains Nick. “We all wear life jackets and, in many ways, it’s easier to teach a new recruit who has no preconceived ideas about boats.”
Each time the lifeboat goes to sea it has a coxswain, a mechanic, a navigator and at least two crew – all trained in a number of complementary skill areas, including first aid. As a trained navigator Nick is also involved in passage work – ferrying lifeboats as far afield as the Shetlands, Orkneys, Hebrides and Ireland.
“Apart from the fulltime paid Coxswain/Mechanic, we are all volunteers,” says Nick. “All of the crew have day jobs. I trained as a chartered accountant and, until retiring in 2015, I was finance director at a local company. A nice contrast!”
Newhaven Lifeboat Station dates back to 1803, some twenty-one years before the RNLI officially started – making it one of the first in Britain. In the early days, most of their excursions involved rescuing professional seafarers and commercial fishermen in treacherous conditions. The crew could gauge the likelihood of a call-out in advance, based on the weather. Nowadays, with the increase in recreational sailing, windsurfing, paragliding, jet skiing and other sea-based leisure pursuits, they are more likely to go out in good weather.
“This makes our job less predictable,” says Nick. “In 2017, we had fifty-six call-outs; only three of which were in gale force conditions.”
The Newhaven RNLI covers a flexible area that can extend as far as Brighton in the west and eastwards to Beachy Head. This is an unusual stretch of coastline geographically, as much of it features high cliffs; which can result in people or their dogs falling over the cliff edge.
“I would strongly urge all dog owners never to let their dogs off the lead near a cliff edge,” says Nick, emphatically. “Dogs simply do not understand the danger. We have had to deal with some tragic cases.”
The Newhaven crew has a 56ft all-weather Severn-class lifeboat; the largest boat operated by the RNLI, with a maximum speed of 25 knots. Newhaven lifeboat has been involved in some notable rescues: in the aftermath of the legendary 1987 hurricane, they saved the five-man crew of a French fishing boat and salvaged the vessel in a violent south-westerly storm and very rough seas. In 2006, operating in shallow hazardous waters, they rescued two people swept into the sea and trapped in an undertow and heavy surf. They saved a capsized canoeist who had become separated from his companions in a winter gale and pulled further out to sea in turbulent water. By the time they found him, he had virtually lost consciousness. Happily, after being helicoptered to hospital, he made a full recovery.
When winds of 80 to 95 knots hit a car ferry in mid-channel, the captain broadcast a Mayday call and instructed the 130 passengers and crew to don lifejackets and prepare to abandon ship. Newhaven lifeboat was launched, but fortunately the ferry’s emergency power was restored and it limped on to Dieppe.
Nick is passionate about the RNLI, its history and traditions. “I’ve met some fantastic people along the way – both crew and members of the public. I consider it a real privilege being a lifeboatman; on an amazing boat, doing things you’d never normally do. There’s a wonderful team spirit – not unlike a rugby team. We all contribute different skills and everyone has their role. Anyone interested, do it!”
Newhaven RNLI, Riverside South, Newhaven, BN9 9BT