Real Lives: Tom marks end of 40 years of rescues

Lifeboatman Tom Robertson, RNLI Queensferry.
Lifeboatman Tom Robertson, RNLI Queensferry.
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A lifeboat man who received an MBE for his dedication has celebrated his retirement following 40 years of service and around 1400 rescues.

Tom Robertson, 72, got a taste for life on the waves at a very young age, having landed his first job working on a training ship in Wales at the tender age of 13.

In 1968, he joined the Merchant Navy and served for five years, travelling the world before returning to Queensferry and joining the lifeboat crew in 1973.

Although he had a full-time job as a director of a printing company, he soon became helmsman and took part in many rescues, often going straight from the lifeboat station to work in the morning.

During 15 years on the lifeboats and through two commendations for bravery, Mr Robertson rose through the ranks to deputy launching authority and then on to the role of lifeboat operations manager for Queensferry, a position he held for 20 years.

In 2006, he was nominated by then-Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West John Barrett for the Lifesavers Award in recognition of his “outstanding service”. Special mention was made at the time of the ill-fated Switha rescue in January 1980 when Mr Robertson and his crew lost power after being battered by a huge wave and were set adrift during a violent storm.

The vessel they had gone to save was eventually rescued by helicopter, with the lifeboat crew having to battle to save their own lives that night. Mr Robertson said: “It was the nearest we came to losing our lives. We lost both engines and ended up adrift. We took space blankets and wrapped them around the cage at the back of the lifeboat and made a sail. We sailed about a mile down river until another boat came and gave us a tow.”

In 2009, Tom officiated when Princess Anne visited his station, Scotland’s busiest inshore base, and again when the Duke of Edinburgh named an Atlantic 85 lifeboat the Jimmie Cairncross.

He was again rewarded in 2010 with a nomination in the Honours list and was presented with his MBE at Buckingham Palace, something he insisted was as much due to the rest of the crew as to himself.

He proved his dedication once again when he held off retiring until the newly built lifeboat station was up and running.

Tom and his wife, Elizabeth, who have a daughter, Mhairi, and a son, Craig, and three grandchildren, celebrated his retirement at a special evening at the Masonic Hall, South Queensferry, with colleagues from his past and present, some of whom had travelled a great distance to attend.

Though his old position will now be filled by David Smart, who has 25 years’ experience with the service, he will still be keeping some ties with his old workmates in his new position as chairman of the lifeboat management group.