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"A Day Out With Doris" - Sunday 3rd March 2002

Special Report

"A Day Out With Doris" - Sunday 3rd March 2002

("Lakeside Launching Authority"-Richard Cracknell, Race Officer-John Gray and Press Officer-Joe Tierney in the company of Chairman Field of Elton)

It is the first Sunday of March, 5am, and there are stirrings in the western environs of Peterborough. Is this the “Stagecoach” Sunday morning early shift shuffling their way from bed to bus-depot to start the day’s toil, or milk laden roundsmen of “Dairy Crest” who forgot to cancel the alarm clock last night and are operating still more or less asleep not knowing or caring what day it is? No! It is the beginning of a magical day that three sailors from Lakeside will never forget and which even in their craziest dreams they would not imagine ever being repeated.

The “Chairman from Hell“ of the Peterborough branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is purposefully on the move and leaving his long suffering lady to slumber on as he stealthily fires up the Volvo in the foggy and cold quiet of Elton village. He is first on the road and in good time for his 6am appointment at the residence of his branch’s Press Officer where his vehicle is put out of the way to rest until his return later in the day. The two of them exchange pleasantries, rather than the usual mutually caustic abuse, and pile into the Press Officer’s small two door Japanese 4x4 “Passion Wagon” before men and machine disappear into the murk. A short spin around the corner and, as soon as they have turned round the motor to leave the Reepham cul-de-sac they same way they entered it, a third companion and well known local “Race Officer” has joined them in one of the “dickie seats” of the tiny road carriage. 

Before, during and after

Now they are off for the open road and the parkway to Longthorpe to collect the first Honorary Secretary of the day, the Launching Authority of the Gunwade Rescuer who again is ready and waiting with baited breath (and wellies in hand) for their arrival. How cosy they look, so compactly arranged in the “transport of delight” with no room inside for the cold damp chill of this foggy morning. They are all away in good time to keep the ultimate appointment of the day.

The party are scheduled to meet with Doris M. Mann of Ampthill at or a little before 9am. Ampthill is a tiny village in Bedfordshire approximately 50 miles by road to the south of Peterborough via the A1(M) and A421. So why are they heading out of Peterborough with great resolve along the A47 in an easterly direction at a fair old rate of knots? The fog is thicker and colder as they press on deep into the fens and astro-navigation is out of the question, so it is by the following of their noses that the expedition reaches and circumnavigates the roundabouts of the outskirts of King’s Lynn and the Hunstanton road until they eventually take the A149 toward Cromer. The fog is so dense as they slip through the Norfolk heartland that no prying eyes, even if they were open at this ungodly hour of the Sabbath, are able to observe the mission they pursue so single-mindedly and with such great camaraderie and excited expectation. What is this bond of common purpose with which they are so unified and which has wrenched each one of them away from the bosoms of their slumbering, long suffering “sailing widow" wives? With what power of attraction has Doris Mann beguiled and bewitched them?

As their journey takes them toward the northern extremities of Norfolk the sun is winning the battle with the fog and a diffuse yet bright and all pervading light further lifts the already intoxicated spirits of the travellers and sharpens their mood of expectation and exhilaration. By the time they arrive on the quay of the picturesque coastal village of Wells-next-the-Sea the driver, now heavily berated by his companions over his failure to stop for victuals at any one of the many burger houses pointed out to him along the road, stops and decants the entire party into the public facilities for necessary relief! Having satisfied the urge of nature and, for some, the craving to burn brown leafy material whilst it is clamped between their lips, the party set off scouring the village for “breakfast”! Finally, having paid the modest parking fee of “50p for any period” the party finish their journey on foot across the sandy bank and dunes to arrive at the home of Doris Mann, good and early for their appointment. They find the door open and hear the sound of a well tuned diesel engine ready for work. Doris was most definitely “at home” and receiving her visitors "by appointment".

Behind the doors she sat elegant and elevated on her carriage, resplendent in the work-worn but proudly borne livery of an operational “All-weather Lifeboat” of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. On the stern of this Mersey class beauty are painted, in the instantly recognised gold and black capital letters, the defiant words “WELLS LIFEBOAT”

On either bow she proudly wore the image of the flag of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and boldly displayed her fleet number 12-003 indicating that when she was built in 1990 she was the third aluminium hulled Mersey class lifeboat to be built for the Institution. 

On each side of her superstructure she has emblazoned, with the gratitude and affection of her crew, the station and the Institution and all it’s supporters, the name of her donor - she was the £455,000 gift of a legacy from the estate of Miss Doris May Mann of Ampthill and a defiantly living memorial to a lady who loved the lifeboats.

Richard at the helm

Aha - missed it! phew


The sound of our awed and careful meanderings around the boathouse were picked up by the sensitive ears of her full-time carer and answered by a shout from this man who was to be our skipper for the day, Allen Frary, Doris’ Coxswain Mechanic. Cordial greetings and offers and acceptances of tea and coffee were made and exchanged as we made our way into the room at the top of the short flight of steps with the door convincingly labelled “Private - Crewroom”. The tide was nearing it’s peak outside the lookout windows overlooking the closely buoyed channel which connects Doris’ resting place with her place of work, the waters of the North Sea off the Norfolk coast and the Wash. All present heard the oh-so-young sounding lady of Her Majesty’s Coastguard on the VHF radio exchanging messages with the Great Yarmouth lifeboat and as we sat talking and drinking our tea it was a timely reminder that the plans for today at Wells could change suddenly and dramatically should those gentle yet effective tones be heard calling for Doris' assistance! Time passed and the long finger started to climb up the face of the clock toward 9am, the second Honorary Secretary of the day, the Launching Authority for the Wells Lifeboat, arrived as did members of the boat and shore crews. It became apparent that the only thing that would put a stop to today’s practice launch and alter the plans that Coxswain Frary had made for the entertainment of his lady's guests was the delightful voice of Her Majesty’s Coastguard should she come over the ether with a real “shout” for the station.

The Press Officer in the party of visitors had some time ago intercepted clandestine communications between his “Chairman from Hell” and representatives of Peterborough's local media which suggested that some underhand and undercover arrangements for today’s activities may well have been negotiated and might well involve the crew of the lifeboat in practising their Man OverBoard recovery skills. The Press Officer had come prepared, he was waterproof from the soles of his feet to his neck and only required the addition of the mandatory RNLI issue lifejacket to complete the picture and be ready and eager for the Coxswain to do his worst - even if that meant some deviousness orchestrated by the “Chairman from Hell“ himself! The other two seafarers were not so keen and they gratefully accepted the loan of full oilies and wellies generously offered by the Coxswain as their own were very usefully back in the car! By just before 9am a fully kitted crew and squad of visitors were invited by the Coxswain to board the Mersey and prepare for launching. The visitors were requested to make their way “below” and remain there throughout the launching process, emerging later should they wish and feel able, when the crew’s deck activities were a little less demanding and space consuming.

The boat rolled forward, borne on her stately carriage propelled by the submersible tractor behind - carriage and tractor representing the peak of traditional British mechanical engineering manufacturing - nothing is too good for the job or too well made if it is to play a vital role in allowing the lifeboat to respond to the desperate need of those in peril on the sea. With a pronounced “bow down” attitude, matching the slope of the boathouse ramp having travelled just a little way down, the lifeboat was in the water on this very high tide and, once her restraining chains were freed in response to smart and firm blows on the release hooks from the heavy hammers deftly wielded by her crew, she was “off”. Once on the water a confirmation of the earlier message sent to Her Majesty’s Coastguard told them that we were under way and who was on board, the crew list and three anonymous visitors. Coxswain Frary himself helmed the lifeboat from the outside steering position as she pulled away from the boathouse and turned to follow the navigation channel between the red and green lateral marker buoys out to the red/white striped “safe water mark” fairway buoy. Here on the edge of the “open sea” the lifeboat held position for a while whilst the crew set up and calibrated the GPS positioning equipment and other navigation systems. This was the point of rendezvoused with their colleagues in the station’s “D Class” boat who had beaten them hands down in getting on the water first. There was no race today, this was not a lifesaving dramatic “shout” to deprive the sea of another of the victims it has chosen but the start of joint practice and training manoeuvres between the two boats to advance the skills of the crews.

The boats pressed on out to sea a little way before someone eventually got very wet! Baptism by total immersion! But, no it was not the Press Officer but one of the crew of the “D Class“ that had taken the plunge in the cause of training an apprentice helmsman of the inshore boat in the techniques of fishing for survivors and casualties in the water. Stories were told establishing that that it is common practice for real men to be sent overboard from the all-weather boat too, but Coxswain Frary has a good heart and had decided today was not the occasion for such festivities. Doris’ helm was now in the hands of a trainee coxswain whose training in the skills of bringing the big boat close alongside the small inflatable when necessary at sea was a major part of the purpose for today’s launch. He is senior coxswain of the “D class” practising and gaining the experience he needs to be named as Third Coxswain for the twelve metre “Mersey”. Coxswain Frary was asking his colleagues in the inflatable to position themselves in ever more awkward and unhelpful positions relative to the direction of wind, sea and waves and then instructing his trainee to take Doris well away from them. He would then be required to approach “within inches” of that little bobbing boat and his trusting, if a little careful, colleagues riding in her. He was to close-in repeatedly and from all points of the compass. Not that it was anything to do with the compass, just experiencing the effects of the wind and sea acting on her hull and superstructure from all possible directions, learning for himself how she responds and receiving the wisdom of the Coxswain in the handling of the lady in the changing circumstances. Today it looked easy, the wind was not particularly lively and the sea was quite gentle with us all, even the “D class” found it difficult to hide between the shallow waves. How different it would be when the elements are roused in fury lusting for the taking of their prey and the lifeboat crew are grimly determined that “the sea shall not have them”.


Coffee time

At a suitable point in proceedings the Coxswain handed out of the wheelhouse to his guests coffee, white or black, with or without sugar to their preferences. 

The closest the visitors saw him come to showing any form of vexation with crewmen or other mortals was when he saw the state of the powdered milk sludge at the bottom of our mugs - seen unfortunately (or otherwise) for the brewer before he had touched his own mug. 

The milk did not pass muster and a suitable replacement was hunted in every locker, bin, box and corner of the wheelhouse - how would the visitors perform when they were put to the test as they surely would be sooner or later for there are no free rides with the lifeboat! Coxswain Frary, having satisfied himself that the future third coxswain now had enough to think about for a couple of weeks, and the rest of the crew had waited long enough for a bit of “light relief”, was still determined not to overtax himself with all that steering and stuff. So, he “invited” up on to the outside helm position, the visiting Press Officer, still almost dry in his brightly coloured but determined looking dry-suit and his sailor’s cap bearing proudly the badge of office “stuck on” him along with the job with which he is so honoured, though inadequate, to be entrusted. Now, this man’s dealings with the press and officers, of the Institution, some honorary, some honourable and some neither, have helped to develop in him a healthily suspicious outlook on life and he had quietly spotted and noted in the corner of his eye the nonchalant wandering toward the front of the boat of a man who drives a “bootiful” lorry most days. He was sure he knew the ultimate destiny they had in mind for the large plastic fender on a rope that he was carrying discretely about his person, hanging limply by his side almost dragging on the deck so that it would not be noticed over or around Doris’ superstructure. The honoured guest was however taken in by Coxswain Frary’s obviously well humoured, polite and accommodating attitude toward his passengers and their comfort and enjoyment on their once in a lifetime day aboard his boat!

Having taken up position at the outside helm, with one of the finest sailors the sea has ever seen at his right elbow, and quickly got the feel of the wheel and the throttle levers, the Press Officer was invited to open her up, full throttles for’ard. Hey, do those guys down there on the deck, particularly those up front, know what to expect ’cos the man on the helm is a little unsure of how we will all come through this experience and it looks like “wet“ could become an undervalued, overused word among Doris‘ little family! One of life’s moments that can’t be described in words but will live as long as the man who experienced it. A man could be able to buy and helm the most expensive, the fastest, the most powerful, most elegant or any boat on the world’s oceans but he still may not experience the thrill and emotion of this occasion. The bow dipping, lunging into the water, rising with the wave - the wake streaming out behind with the white froth whipped up by the twin, tunnelled propellers urging her beautiful hull through the water without asking to where they are straining. Doris is so responsive to the will of her helmsman, immediately answering to the throttles and the wheel. She responds as eagerly as the men who trust her with their lives run for the boathouse when the call comes. “Man overboard” is the strident cry that, out of nowhere but complacency, hit’s the ears of the helmsman and tightens his stomach for now he must act and sharp about it! The man at the bow of the boat has his hand raised, ram rod straight and pointing with laser like accuracy toward the position of the man in the water. He adjusts his aim with every twitch of the boats heading and position, eyes riveted on his target. He points so determinedly that his arm must surely grow as each second passes and he gives the helmsman the guidance he needs to bring the boat about and approach the perishing soul in the water, whilst his colleagues prepare to pluck out of harm’s way the unlucky mariner.

Dramatic enough for us when it is only a plastic fender helped to dive overboard by the “bootiful” lorry driver on a relatively calm day in good weather and bright sunlight - an awesome nightmare in the dark, for a tired and weary crew after hours at sea in a gale of wind and mountainous seas!

The Press Officer having achieved a performance deserving of something better than outright derision in an easy one, we set off again to give the engines a run until that bit of seawater in the corner of Coxswain Allan’s eye again irritated him, triggering a pronounced twitch which mysteriously seemed to cause the unfortunate fender to once more leap from the guardrail of the boat on the starboard quarter! The laws are very strict these days about what you can get away with dumping at sea - the odd lifeboat man might be ignored but its prison term for dropping a fender and not picking it up. So, double quick time and once again the blood curdling and attention grabbing scream, the extended arm and the peering fixed eyes on the target. The helmsman is hoping, no praying, that Coxswain Frary will drop him a hint regarding the finer points of boat handling as the bow begins to point ever more downward in the waves and the crew up front on the deck begin to wish they too were wearing jazzy dry-suits, at least up to the waist. This time we again came past very close to the casualty as is the intention but had to indulge in a little heavy reversal of the engines as we slightly overshot!

Next was the turn of the Gunwade Launching Authority to try for the Gold Medal of the Society for the Welfare and Longevity of Old Plastic Fenders. He did well also but had benefited from observing the efforts of the man before him who had been so complimented by our Coxswain Frary. Something, who knows what, in this second man’s performance attracted the even greater admiration of Coxswain Frary who immediately informed the first soul that faced now with an unexpected superior performance his original award to him of a red badge would have to be downgraded to a green one! The Race Officer, who it must be said, handled Doris in just the same way he handles a Public Service Vehicle then followed in taking over the helm. Despite almost reaching Bridlington in the process of turning the boat to return on her mission of retrieval and the man pointing at the position of the casualty resorting to the use of powerful binoculars to keep it in sight, he too impressed greatly and was also awarded a red badge. Coxswain Frary then thought about the paperwork associated with reporting to HQ and explaining any excessive fuel consumption and decided he had better set course for the fairway marker buoy and return Doris to the boathouse. The Race Officer was in seventh heaven when instructed to open her up full throttle and take her home - 16 knots with the bow out of the water, like a National Solo on a screaming reach in a force 5, and the crew huddled behind him at the back of the boat for shelter.

Coxswain Frary brought her down the channel back into Wells and pushed her bow onto the sandy beach to meet the shore crew and tractor with its winch rope to haul her out. She was hauled clear of the water, with the hardest work of the day, and eventually winched onto her carriage and secured before being towed round onto the boathouse ramp. Here she was washed from stem to stern by her dedicated team of shore carers and the Press Officer had the honour of hosing down half her bottom. More tea and coffee was consumed in the crowded crew room, personal gear was removed and returned to its appropriate resting place and at a moment’s notice the Honorary Secretary would have authorised another launching had the dulcet tones of the lady watchkeeper of Her Majesty’s Coastguard called for them. The “Chairman from Hell” had reason to feel satisfaction, though some of his schemes had not borne the abundant fruit he had hoped for whilst his team were out with Doris’, he had worked magic for three regular guys who never dreamed that they would ever ride on a lifeboat unless disaster had overtaken them, even less that they would be examined for their “Powerboat Level 2” with Doris M. Mann of Ampthill under the assessment of Coxswain Allen Frary and his crew.

Last year, Coxswain Allen Frary and “D Class” Helmsman Bob Smith were awarded the “Thanks of the Institution on Vellum” for their courageous and skilful parts in the rescue of the yacht Candy and her crew. The Institution also awarded Vellum Service Certificates to Michael Frary, Alfred Smith, Nicholas King, Jason Walker, Mark White, Alan Platten, Kevin Parr, Gary Wright and Martin Emerson. This lifesaving service resulted from the quick action and keen observance of station Tractor Driver, Philip Eaglen who received, from the RNLI, the Operations Director’s Letter of Thanks.

We were privileged and honoured to be invited out with “Doris” in the company of some of the most special “ordinary men” that we shall ever meet. We thank the Honorary Secretary, the Launching Authority for the lifeboat, and our Branch Chairman who between them decided we represented a suitable case for treatment! We were not tolerated by the crew, we were welcomed as members of the team, given the run of the boat and we felt the sincerity of the lifeboatmen when they say thank you to all those people who support them through the RNLI. We were three greatly privileged men from Lakeside, Peterborough and we returned knowing that those men who go out when all other sailors are heading for shelter as fast as they can are deeply mindful of and grateful to all who support them. We thank them in gratitude and humility.

March 2002

On average, RNLI lifeboats launch over 6,500 times every year and save 1,300 lives.
RNLI lifeboats have saved over 133,500 lives since it was founded in 1824.