THE Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) crew members at Queensferry are a busy bunch – probably the busiest in Scotland.
New RNLI statistics revealed the station was the most called in the country last year, launching 66 times and rescuing 163 people.
Confirmation that they operate the nation’s most active lifeboat came as little surprise to volunteers at RNLI Queensferry’s newly-opened centre on Newhalls Road.
Over the years, they’ve been called out to everything from plane crashes and burning boats to emergencies, including the case of a man who fell from the Forth Road Bridge and that of a pregnant woman suffering a miscarriage while she was stranded on Cramond Island.
The going is tough, not least because crew members have to hold down demanding day jobs so they can afford to head out to sea when help is needed.
David Smart, 46, helmsman and joint operations manager who’s an electrician and mechanic when he’s not on call, said news that his was Scotland’s busiest boat was “not unexpected”.
However, he said he wasn’t about to give up saving lives.
“It’s difficult to explain – the work just gets into you and becomes part of your system,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”
Annual statistics from the RNLI showed lifeboat crews are needed more than ever across Scotland. Last year, a record 1055 people were rescued by the charity’s members.
There was a big increase in the number of people saved after being cut off by the tide – up to 72 from 35 in 2011, with many of those lifted from Cramond Island.
However, Queensferry team members have, over the years, used their lifesaving skills in situations that tested them to the limit.
Mr Smart said his memories of searching a small mail plane which plunged into the Forth with the loss of two lives on February 27, 2001, were still vivid.
“That was a particularly hairy day,” he recalled. “The plane was on a relocation flight to Northern Ireland but the engines seized up and it ended up on the rocks, close to Granton Harbour.
“Happily, there was no-one else on board. The pilot and the co-pilot, unfortunately, perished. It was scary as, at the time, we weren’t sure the plane didn’t have other passengers on board.
“I remember it was snowing, there was sleet – a horrible night, very rough, which made the mission extremely difficult.
“The cold was the biggest thing. It slows you down very quickly – it’s all you think about in the end.”
However, he insisted that, after years in which the equipment used by lifeboats has become much more sophisticated, his crew members were ready to tackle the perilous situations they are forced to confront.
He said: “Since I started out, serving on a lifeboat has become a lot more technical. There’s more electronics involved. In the past you just had a radio – now you have radar, GPS, a direction-finding set, as well as other navigation equipment.
“A lot of training is needed to be able to use the equipment quickly. You also need to be able to administer first aid and CPR, and handle casualties with head and spinal injuries.”
However, Mr Smart’s more recent recruits, many of whom have jobs that bear little resemblance to the challenge of saving lives at sea, said they had thrived on the challenge.
Mobile DJ Craig Maison, 24, also from South Queensferry and now in his sixteenth month as a crewman, said: “For me, being in the RNLI has always been about helping other people.”
“I’m a community first responder in Queensferry for the Scottish Ambulance Service and it’s all experience for my end goal, which is to join the ambulance service as a full technician and then move up as a paramedic.”
For Mr Maison, the satisfaction of lifeboat work comes from dealing with rescue missions which can change dramatically in minutes.
He said: “There was one time we had to uplift two people from Cramond Island and it was while we were coming alongside the pontoon in Granton Harbour that we noticed there was this yacht that was throwing up plumes of thick black smoke, 15, maybe 20, feet into the air.
“Then we saw two people on the pontoon screaming for help – a woman in her thirties and a young girl. We had to disembark very suddenly and discovered the cabin was full of smoke, with the woman’s husband on board trying to sort it out.
“The engine had seized and was heating up, but we were able to work quickly to shut off the boat’s fuel system so the engine starved itself. What we thought was a 45-minute job turned into something much longer.
“The entire pontoon was in danger. If the engine hadn’t been stopped, the yacht could have caught fire, along with all the other boats.”
He added: “The job started with something routine but then became a race against time. After finishing, I was told about a situation in Rosyth when a similar problem caused the whole boat to catch fire.”
Crews said that in a non-stop society, an ability to act in unpredictable situations had become crucial.
Crew member and Ryanair pilot Tom Glasby, 26, revealed he would always remember a mission by his team to save a man who fell from the Forth Road Bridge in May last year.
He said: “He was unconscious and not breathing when the team found him, so CPR was administered and we managed to get him breathing again.
“That’s what being in the RNLI is all about – responding to the unexpected. It gives you a sense of giving back and helping the community. You get a real sense of pride.”
Andy Clift, RNLI regional operations manager for Scotland, said: ”The figures show that our volunteers dedicate a huge amount of their time to saving lives at sea. To know that they are on call 24/7, every day of the year, is reassuring for all of us who venture out to sea around the Scottish coast.”
CREW members at the RNLI’s Queensferry branch have hailed the opening of a state-of-the-art lifeboat station at Hawes Pier as a development that will help save lives.
The building – opened officially in November – features launch and training facilities, as well as a shop selling stationery, gift cards and RNLI souvenirs.
Deputy launch manager and charity fundraiser Ross Mackay, 37, said: “This facility will really help us. One of the main changes will be that we are now able to push out from the station’s main door and straight onto the pier.
“You’re knocking a minute, maybe two, off our launch time . . . when you’re talking about someone out on the water, it makes all the difference.”