Late Sunday morning on the east Sussex coast, foam from the waves churned up by Storm Ciara flew through the town of Hastings like salty snowflakes. Children anoraked up to the eyes yelped with excitement as they lent their full body weight against the wind on the stretches of stony beach as their parents took pictures of the worst storm to hit the UK in seven years.
Among the cluster of tall, wooden fishermen’s sheds painted black, seafood stalls were shuttered, while the best fish and chip shop in town, at the top of one of the huts, didn’t dare open for lunch in such treacherous conditions.
At 11.20am, the coastguard received an emergency 999 call from a member of the public, concerned about a surfer who had become separated from their board in rough seas beneath towering cliffs near the huts, at Rock-a-Nore.
Footage captured by an onlooker shows the surfer struggling against the roiling froth, losing their board, and disappearing beneath crashing waves:
This is the surfer when he lost his board and it went from bad to worse for him. He even refused help from standers by. He could have prevented this whole scene with the rescuers. pic.twitter.com/8JgZXEjO7Y
— Richard Connolly (@RichardConnolly) February 9, 2020
According to the Hastings & St Leonards Observer, the surfer was found over two hours later six miles away in Rye Bay; the person managed to reach the beach independently and was given casualty care by coastguard rescue officers and then airlifted to hospital by a search and rescue helicopter. “The missing person was found alive and well, albeit somewhat cold,” a spokesperson for the Hastings Coastguard told the local paper.
It was during this attempt to recover someone the Sun has described in a headline as an “idiot surfer” that the viral clip that defined Storm Ciara emerged: an RNLI lifeboat setting out to sea and almost entirely capsizing as it is buffeted by the waves:
— Paul Hogg (@upshot11) February 9, 2020
When the coastguard rescue team arrived on the scene, it requested that this all-weather lifeboat was launched. In the end, the surfer reached safety and no one was hurt (apart from, perhaps, the surfer’s pride – vitriol on social media abounds accusing them of endangering other people’s lives for kicks), making the most striking part of this story the voluntary nature of such a vital emergency service.
“Thanks to your support our lifeboat crew receive the best training and lifeboats, to withstand these types of conditions,” tweeted the RNLI, highlighting its status as a charity.
The volunteer lifeboat crews of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution provide a 24-hour rescue service in the UK and Ireland, as well as seasonal lifeguards on busy beaches. There are over 5,500 volunteer crew members and 3,500 shore crew volunteers who run 431 lifeboats – with an overall average of 26 call-outs a day.
None of this relies on government funding, aside from the tax breaks charities receive. “In a way, we’re fortunate that we’ve never taken government funding as the cuts won’t affect us,” the former RNLI chief executive Paul Boissier quipped in 2011.
Volunteer-led charities such as the RNLI and St John Ambulance for first aid – both founded in the 19th century – were embracing the “big society” long before it was a Cameroon buzz concept. The Independent called the RNLI “part of the big society for nearly 200 years” a year after the idea was championed by Cameron as prime minister.
Since the “big society” died as a phrase around 2013, undermined by cuts to charity grants and community projects and the private sector contracts favoured by successive Tory governments, volunteers have continued to perform essential roles.
Feeding the hungry is one example of a service one would assume is a basic function of the state. But owing to record and rising foodbank use (the Trussell Trust distributed a record 823,145 food parcels between April and September 2019), this service now depends on over 40,000 volunteers across the country.
Speaking to people who volunteer in foodbanks, you always hear the same messages: “we shouldn’t have to exist”, “we started this as a temporary measure”, and “we are just papering over the cracks”.
With nine out of 19 coastguard operation stations closed by 2015, the RNLI is literally a life-saver. Yet when you think about its rich and much-loved history in light of those cuts, and that of St John Ambulance amid stretched NHS resources, it’s possible to imagine our current networks of goodwill – like today’s proliferation of foodbanks – becoming similar institutions of emergency provision.