An uplifting trip to the RNLI College in Poole

On our way back from Cornwall last week I had planned a surprise for Philosopher – a night at the RNLI College in Poole, which as well as being a training facility is set up as a hotel for visiting guests. We also had a tour of the complex. It was all very interesting and uplifting – Philosopher said it made him almost tearful. Mind you, he could also have shed tears of shock – he didn’t know where we were going until we got there. He possibly imagined I’d arranged for him to get kitted up in a yellow survival suit and set out to sea to save lives in a Force 9 gale…

Sunset from our room at the RNLI College


Not so, all much more luxurious. Don’t ask me how I heard of the place – I booked it so long ago that I have forgotten. But anyone wanting to go needs to book a room well in advance, book an evening meal, and book a college tour. The RNLI complex is huge – much bigger than I expected, and mostly very modern. As well as the college there is a lifeboat factory and various admin offices on site. All the bedrooms have views across Poole Harbour – right into the sunset, which was lovely. There were a line of lifeboats parked outside… Our room was large,  with a very comfortable bed.

After settling in we went for a walk around Poole, which we had visited briefly once once before – and had not been impressed. But this time we walked through the Old Town to the Quay, which was quieter and more attractive. There were some interesting old buildings but an awful lot of reconstruction. I liked this green-tiled pub on the Quay.

The catering facilities at the RNLI College are very flash – with an upstairs sea-view bar and downstairs sea-view ‘Riggers’ restaurant. It was quite full, with trainees probably outnumbered by guests. Food was fine and reasonably priced. I had steak. Service was efficient and friendly.

Bar with resturant below – from RNLI website

Next morning the breakfast was excellent – clearly geared up for hungry lifeboat persons, they had actual fried bread on offer – Battleaxe hasn’t had a piece for years… I used to love it at boarding school, where my favourite was fried bread with tinned tomatoes.  You well may ask, what happened to Battleaxe’s regime of healthy eating and weight reduction? Well, don’t forget we had just spent a week in Cornwall. Started out the week with good intentions but by the end? Hell, who cared.

After brekkie it was time for our tour. Only eight of us, with a very knowledgable guide. First we had a talk about RNLI history, then we went to look at the various categories of lifeboat moored outside, and learned how to interpret the letters and numbers on their sides. Battleaxe is now a lifeboat nerd. In Hastings we have two  – an all-weather Shannon lifeboat, which I can remember arriving at the station back in 2018 – here is the blog post about it – and a smaller in-shore one. I mentioned that we came from Hastings to the bloke – our set-up is interesting because the lifeboat has to be launched down a long stretch of shingle beach. I was told that the special tractor and revolving platform to launch and recover our boat cost £1.6 million alone. The RNLI gets no government funding – everything is paid for by donations.

Loadsa lifeboats

We were surprised to learn that the RNLI also covers southern Ireland.  It always has done, and whatever political upheavals have gone on over the years, it has always been known over there as the RNLI. Like here, in Ireland it is a well-loved institution. Indeed, the list of stations with volunteers attending courses when we were at the college included Dun Loaghaire, just near Dublin – I used to know it well.

We went across to another building, the Sea Survival Centre, where people are trained in the most alarming things in a big pool. Clearly, we couldn’t watch an actual session, but we saw a video. Terrifying or what. The in-shore boats are not self-righting, and the crew has to be able to swim under the boat and right it themselves. They have do this in enoromous artificial waves, and in the dark, while wearing bulky survival suits.  They also have to know how to save themselves by inflating their own life-rafts and struggling into them. Active crew members have to do this course every five years to ensure they can be safe in the boats. We were all suitably gob-smacked, and asked how many fail the courses. ‘People don’t fail,’ our guide said. ‘We encourage them to sign up for other duties.’

Then, better still, we all piled into a lifeboat simulator, also used for training. It was fixed to the floor but the effect of the surging waves through the windows was realistic enough to produce queasiness.  Some of our party took turns to steer the boat while I was given the navigator’s seat. We sped out of ‘Dover Harbour’ to a simulated shipwreck disaster scene. It made us realise how hard it was to spot people in the water – especially when the ‘sea’ got rough. Half the time we ran them over. Then our guide ratcheted up the sea dial until we were wallowing about in mountainous waves. No idea where we were, no idea where we were going! It was all great fun but really brought home to us how hard the crew’s job is in real life.

After that, we visited the engine training workshops – masses of different sorts of engine for all the different types of boat. Apparently, boat mechanics are the category of staff most likely to be on the RNLI payroll – not surprising – the role is obviously crucial and requires advanced technical skills.

We came away suitably awestruck and impressed.

However, I meant to ask the guide if they were experiencing a shortage of volunteers. I know this problem is afflicting all charities at the moment. I suspect the RNLI does quite well for volunteers to crew the boats. For active, sea-loving, risk-taking, strong, younger people, it must be attractive. However, I imagine it is all quite hard to manage – it would also appeal to macho, aggressive individuals who could easily slip through and then get out of hand. It reminded me of when I used to work for what was then called the National Marriage Guidance Council (now RELATE). We always had lots of people applying to be counsellors, and in those days, the training was very impressive. However, the selection process had to be rigourous – it attracted people with a wide variety of personal/marital difficulties who vaguely hoped to address their own problems by ‘helping’ others, as well as voyeurs and the plain curious.

Battleaxe would wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the RNLI at Poole, for a stay and a Discovery Tour. For us, our b and b night and tour cost £149. You can also book tours of the lifeboat factory.  Click here for details.

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