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The RNLI Takes Over

Rescue was a large part of our work and I remember being called to a canoeist stranded on a large buoy in a fast running river. Such a rescue is a delicate operation and takes a great deal of boat handling skill. Specifically, you head your launch against the flow above the bouy, then reduce throttle so that you gradually fall back, being careful to maintain just enough throttle to control the forward or backward movement. You ease the stern of the launch carefully back towards the buoy and when just inches away your crew help the stranded person safely into the launch. If the stern of your launch were to touch the buoy, it could be whipped around by the fast current and in a flash become a very serious accident.

The "Regulars" and the "Specials" worked well together, we respected one another and I believe that common bond of the "river" had something to do with it. On Christmas Day the Specials volunteered to undertake all the river patrols so that the "Regulars" could have the time off to be with their families. They really did appreciate that.

I have already mentioned the disaster in 1989 that changed everything, you can imagine the number of enquiries that were commissioned to determine who was at fault and what should be done to make the river safer. The upshot was that the Government asked the Maritime and Coast Guard Agency, the Port of London Authority and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to work together and set up a dedicated Search & Rescue service for all the tidal waters of the Thames.

The floating canteen at Waterloo Pier
The photo shows the floating canteen at Waterloo Pier.

Consequently, on 2nd January 2001, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over from the Thames Police and set up four lifeboat stations: coming in from the sea, the first is at Gravesend in the county of Kent, the second at Tower Pier by Westminster Bridge in the City of London. The third at Chiswick Pier in the cosmopolitan district of Chelsea, the fourth being at Teddington in Surrey, which is near Richmond and is the upper end of the tidal waters of the river.

The first three stations are permanently manned to provide an immediate response to emergencies, the fourth at Teddington is manned by volunteers. The three full-time stations are manned 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and can launch a rescue craft within one minute, being able to reach any point on the River between Canvey Island in Essex and Teddington in Middlesex, within 15 minutes.

The boats used are Tiger Marine fast response craft capable of 40 knots. During their first year of operation they were called out more than 800 times.

The Marine & Coastguard Agency now co-ordinates all Thames rescue operations from a Port of London Authority Operations Room. However, this service is not a law enforcement agency, it concentrates on the rescue of people.

For law enforcement, the 14 miles of river between Hampton Court and Bell Weir is policed by the Surrey Police who have a dedicated officer based at Shepperton, sharing a launch with the Environmental Agency. The lower part of the river below Dartford comes under the jurisdiction of the Kent and Essex Police Forces but only Essex has a dedicated river section.