Highlands & Islands

Thurso lifeboat crew prepare for Christmas shout

Thurso lifeboat
Image caption Craig Anderson and cameraman Brian Ashman joined the crew of Thurso lifeboat for a day's training

For the crew of the Thurso lifeboat, Christmas Day is like any other day - when their emergency pagers go off.

And twice in the past three years the largely volunteer crew have been called out on a day that for most of us is a relaxing holiday.

The first was a false alarm when someone mistook flying Chinese lanterns for distress flares.

Though exactly a year later, the lifeboat had to rescue the crew of a fishing boat which had run aground on rocks during the night and then return several hours later at high tide to pull the vessel to safety.

"You never know, when the pager goes, you go - Christmas or not," said coxswain Wing Munro, who along with the boat's mechanic is the only full-time crew member.

"That's what the RNLI is about - saving lives."

First established in 1860, the Thurso lifeboat is actually based at the port of Scrabster just along the coast from the Caithness town.

Over the past century and a half, the crew has rescued more than 600 people from the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth.

Crewman Kevin Davidson's house actually overlooks the lifeboat station so he hasn't far to travel when the shout comes in.

"It's the same as any other time when the pager goes off," he said of the Christmas call-outs.

"The adrenaline kicks in and you've just got to get down to the boathouse and get on the boat really. You just don't care what day it is. Everything goes out of your head."

The Severn-class lifeboat called The Taylors is the largest type in the RNLI fleet with a total of 2,500 horsepower on tap and a top speed of 25 knots. Having joined the crew on a training mission I can confirm just how fast that feels over the waves.

Image caption Thurso lifeboat, The Taylors, being out through its paces

Kevin's partner Karen Munro has few fears for his safety when the crew are called out - even into the teeth of a raging storm.

She said: "I don't really worry about Kevin, I tend to worry about the person that's in trouble. Kevin and all the staff down at Thurso RNLI are very experienced at dealing with the weather and take everything that's thrown at them."

Lee MacKay was a new recruit to the crew three years ago when he got his first shout on Christmas Day. He'd been playing the accordion for his young niece when his pager went off.

He said: "First of all I didn't quite know what to do so I threw the accordion in the corner and ran out the door.

"It was before I even had a driving licence so I just got the first person I could to get me to the lifeboat station. It was quite some excitement for a first shout."

A lifeboat station such as Thurso needs a pool of up to 20 volunteer crew to be able to provide a round-the-clock response.

Many have a family link with the RNLI or with seafaring, though most have land-based jobs such as plumbers, joiners and ambulance technicians.

And even if they're hoping not to notch up their hat-trick of Christmas shouts this year, the crew will remain on standby throughout the festive season, as always, ready to drop everything to turn out if they're needed.

Wing Munro said: "They're all connected with the sea up here because we're right on the north coast and our neighbour is the sea.

"As long as we get a good feed of turkey when we come back, fair enough."