RNLI bosses pushed veteran volunteers to leave after viewing them as ‘disposable’, say lifeboat crew

The Shannon-class boat is one of the vessels at the heart of the disharmony at the RNLI
The Shannon-class boat is one of the vessels at the heart of the disharmony at the RNLI - BNPS

RNLI bosses have snubbed veteran volunteers and pushed them to leave, lifeboat crew have claimed.

Long-serving crew members at the charity told The Telegraph of bitter internal strife in some lifeboat stations and requests to management going ignored.

One told of mass resignations of volunteers in protest at bosses viewing them as “disposable”, while another claimed he was sacked in a row after an all-weather was replaced with an inshore inflatable vessel.

Controversy has hit charity

It comes as the RNLI celebrates its 200th anniversary, having saved more than 144,000 lives since 1824 and still serving as the primary rescue service for Britain and Ireland’s coastline.

In a picture to celebrate the anniversary on Monday, the RNLI released a bird’s-eye-view image of a £2.5 million Shannon-class lifeboat being launched – which is one of the vessels at the heart of the row.

Covering 238 lifeboat stations and many beaches, its current income of £230 million continues to grow along with donations and legacies, but controversy has hit the acclaimed charity at some stations.

Alex Smith, 69, said he was dismissed as the operations manager of Arbroath Lifeboat Station in Angus, eastern Scotland, in June last year after opposing the replacement of its all-weather Mersey-class lifeboat with an Atlantic 85 rigid-hulled inflatable boat.

He claimed that he and other crew members were concerned that the Atlantic 85 had a six-mile radius range at sea and had been promised that a Shannon class would be given to them instead, a new hi-tech all-weather boat with a range of 250 nautical miles.

“All I cared about was the safety of the crew,” the semi-retired charter skipper said. “Management just did not pay attention and they did not listen to us.

‘A fatality on your hands’

“I’ve been sailing here all my life, I know that boat will not be able to handle bad conditions. Our superiors say the neighbouring stations at Montrose and Broughty Ferry will be able to step in if it’s too rough but it will take 30 minutes for them to get here.

“That’s long enough to have a fatality on your hands.”

Mr Smith, who joined the RNLI in 2001 and served as an onshore launcher until 2009 when he became operations manager, said he was eventually dismissed when a private WhatsApp conversation in which he described his managers as “lying b—----” was leaked to the charity. He had also been censured for speaking to the local newspaper about the boat swap without permission.

Another crew member to raise concerns about management at the charity is Heidi Bakewell, 44, who quit the Pwllheli station in north Wales last month after she concluded that “volunteers are disposable”.

‘Division and disharmony’

She was one of 12 crew members with a combined 170 years of experience who resigned after a row with a colleague who spoke only in Welsh on a rescue, which not everyone could understand.

The station was shuttered last August as the RNLI investigated the row, which it has said was causing so much “division and disharmony” that rescue operations were “unsafe”.

Ms Bakewell, a pub landlady at Y Llong in nearby Edern, said the volunteers were ready to start over on a “clean slate” last month until managers told them they would have to reapply for their roles, at which point 12 handed in their resignations.

‘Management have got no idea’

“It is absolutely devastating,” she told The Telegraph. “I was absolutely gobsmacked that at a charity that has been brought up on volunteers, that the management just don’t seem to be trained to deal with any disharmony. They’ve just got no idea.”

The claims came as former personnel at other RNLI stations told MailOnline they claimed to have witnessed “bullying”.

This included Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, where Stewart Oxley, 55, a volunteer of 37 years, claims he was stood down by management after opposing the replacement of the station’s £2 million all-weather lifeboat that could carry 120 people with a three-man D-class dinghy, as bosses said the pier it launched from was unsafe.

An RNLI spokesman said of the Arbroath row that “no change would be made that compromised safety” and a four-month consultation led to the boat swap, though one Atlantic 85, three Shannon-class and four D-class lifeboats covering 33 nautical miles from Anstruther to Montrose “will provide the very best life-saving response”.

Agreed to move forward

“We do not stand volunteers down for simply disagreeing or making appropriate challenges to decision making,” the charity added.

The spokesman said of the Pwllheli row that after a “breakdown in relationships between people at the station”, two thirds of the crew and 13 new volunteers have agreed to move forward and an “intensive two-week training period is now under way” to get the lifeboat back in service.

In response to the additional claims on MailOnline, the RNLI accused the publication of having “deliberately tried to diminish our 200th anniversary” and “chosen to rehash some mainly historic stories to create a false impression of our charity – one that most of our people just do not recognise”.