The weekend of 9th-10th of March saw Vicki and I join a dozen or so friends from the Solent branch for a tour of the RNLI training centre in Poole, Dorset. We met over coffee in the rather impressive reception. In fact the whole complex is impressive. Our guide was Howard, a volunteer of course, and he began with a bit of background.
A gentleman was preparing his will. He was wealthy by any standards and having taken care of his family he was left with a couple of old cars in his garage. He’d never had much to do with the sea but had always been impressed with the RNLI so he simply left them the cars.They were vintage Ferraris and between them fetched £8m. This, together with just nine more legacies covered the £27m cost of centre.
Lifeboat crews are, of course, volunteers. They do a very dangerous and highly skilled job and top class training is therefore paramount and the centre provides this in a single, self-contained facility. Starting with a large plot of land fronting onto the harbour which the Institute already owned, the architect had a free hand and made the most of it. Developed around the concept of a ship, a cruise liner perhaps, it is functional as well as stylish.
The top three floors are devoted to trainee accommodation. Courses typically last two weeks and are, to put it mildly, demanding. The cabins provide a comfortable environment to both relax and complete private course-work. Each one looks out over the harbour, and the facilities follow the cruise ship model. Sharing the same floors are the classrooms, all very well equipped as might be imagined with, for example, manikins for anatomical and first aid training.
Lifeboat training generates a decent appetite. The restaurant is light and airy with an excellent kitchen (we can vouch for this). From there a spiral staircase leads up to the bar, which like the restaurant is circular with an uninterrupted view of the harbour. The pillar in the centre of the staircase spreads at the top like a tulip, and the whole thing is wrapped in a spiral of rope. We were told this took three men two weeks to complete, and used very nearly a kilometre of rope.
But of course crews get wet when they are on a shout, so there is a training pool. Here they can practice recovering an upturned lifeboat, even discover what it feels like to be winched from a life-raft by helicopter. All of which sounds quite tame in a swimming pool. However the wave machines produce 2m seas, the wind generators simulate a force 8 gale, the crews are sprayed with refrigerated water and the room is blacked out. The crews spend 45 minutes in a simulated thunderstorm, eventually being winched to safety by helicopter. Even the sound and lights of the aircraft are reproduced.
Then there is the simulator itself, an exact reproduction of the cockpit (if that’s the right word) of a Shannon class lifeboat. All the instrumentation is real, the images passing outside the windows are real and the navigation is real. The instructors can vary the location of the exercise so that none of the trainees is familiar with it, and of course the simulated conditions are rough. Although the floor never moves, the simulation is so realistic that a sick bucket has to be provided.
From our point of view as visitors a number of points are worth passing on. As noted earlier the facilities are excellent, as good as any decent hotel. We had booked in for the Saturday night after the tour and enjoyed a lovely comfortable room with a spectacular view over Poole harbour. The staff were without exception friendly and very efficient and the meal in the evening lovely. The bar has a commanding view of the harbour and serves excellent ale, including ‘Lifeboat’ brewed by the Ringwood brewery specifically for the centre, as well as a wide range of wines and spirits. In good weather there is a generous balcony for a bit of fresh air. They take great pride in their function room, and this is fully justified. Almost completely circular, with just the servery taking up a bit of space at the back, it is fully glazed with nothing to interrupt the view of the water. They can host up to 80 guests for a full service banquet and can adjust the décor and furnishings to accommodate personal requirements and tastes. The room faces West, so on a clear evening will be flooded by the glow of the setting sun. It is spectacular, to say the least. When they are not in use for training all the facilities are available to the public. Given the quality on offer this would be hard to beat, for example for a corporate weekend away or training session.
We paid £85 for the room, which we regard as more than competitive particularly given the location and facilities (but note that prices vary with season, as with most hotels). Bar and restaurant prices are again competitive with local hostelries, but then reality strikes. All the profit from the hotel, the restaurant and the bar goes straight into the coffers of the RNLI and into saving lives at sea. Personally I have no problem with that.
Actually I think I’ll order myself another pint, just in case It’s my life on the line next time they launch the lifeboat. In fact I suggest we raise a glass to Tim Aspden to thank him for organising a very successful event.