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A stroll in the park?

Wednesday 9 October 2013

“A stroll in the park” is how Humber Lifeboat Coxswain Dave Steenvoorden (for reasons unknown, otherwise called "Spanish") jokingly called the RNLI’s Big Pull event in London’s Hyde Park on Friday, 20 September (2013).

I don’t think that’s quite what the eight teams from various City firms who took part in this corporate fundraiser would call it!

They each had the challenge of pulling/ heaving/ dragging a Mersey Class All-Weather Lifeboat (with Dave on board in his RNLI kit giving a running commentary) along the quarter-of-a-mile course.  The Lifeboat that was 'pulled' – Inchcape - can normally be found saving lives at sea off the coast of Arbroath in Scotland.

In fact, the challenge involved not only the 14 tonne lifeboat but also the massive lorry trailer it sat on - a combined weight of 37 tonnes. 

All the teams had was a tow rope, and their combined muscles and determination, to get that load down that course.  Some teams were men-only but several, including RNLI’s own ‘chain gang’ from Head Office, were mixed.

Having managed to get lorry and lifeboat moving from a standstill (luckily, lorry driver Dave always remembered to take the handbrake off!), it was fairly easy going – some teams managing a speedy trot – until they got to the small but brutal incline at the 250m mark.

It was truly awe-inspiring to see the teams summoning all their strength in every fibre to get it up that hill, shown in their sweaty grimaces and gasps for air.

We all cheered and clapped them on, and all the teams completed the course in good times, with construction firm BAM Nuttall coming out tops at an unassailable 6 minutes 1 second.  (The main photo is used courtesy of the RNLI.)

It was a really exciting day and, happily, after a grey start the sun burst out just as the competition began and stayed shining all afternoon.

Without reservation, I'd recommend anyone to help at such events.  As well as having fun, the Big Pull helped raise vital donations for the RNLI. Each company taking part had to pay £500 to register and raise a further £2000 in sponsorship. Banners along the course invited people to text £3 contributions (you’re not allowed to shake buckets in the Royal Parks).

As 'Spanish' said, fundraising is vital to the RNLI: “We can only go out and rescue those in trouble at sea because of the generosity of the public, as 92% of our income comes from donations.”

Although the event was organised for RNLI’s corporate supporters, the spectacle attracted a fair number of passers-by. Well, it’s not every day you see a bright orange lifeboat gliding down a leafy avenue in Hyde Park.

Strange though it was to see, this event actually reflected real life as, on many occasions, people have pulled RNLI lifeboats down to the sea.  For instance, in January 1899 volunteers in Devon pulled an RNLI lifeboat a staggering 15 miles across Exmoor when a storm prevented its launch from Lynmouth Harbour. Some 100 people and 18 horses pulled the lifeboat over a climb of over 1,400 feet to reach a safe launch point at Porlock Weir.

Being a Big Pull volunteer steward meant walking the length of the course as each team made their way to the finish (and back again as the lorry and lifeboat were reversed back to the starting point). I also wanted to see how such an event is organised.

Wouldn’t it be just marvellous if The Lifeboat Fund could put on a similar fundraising/ publicity event, with civil servants competing from various Departments?  Imagine seeing fit young Permanent Secretaries and staff heaving a lifeboat up Whitehall or Victoria Street!

Nicola Baker, author of article and The Lifeboat Fund's volunteer at Big Lifeboat Pull