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Photograph: Laura Lewis
Photograph: Laura Lewis

Meet the lifeboat team that looks after the Thames

Tower Lifeboat Station has rescued nearly 2,000 people. Now it needs your help

Written by
Nicole Garcia Merida

Thames river bus worker Holly McGlinchey was on her lunchbreak when she received a call from another boat asking for help. Someone had fallen into the river and couldn’t be reached. McGlinchey and her sister, with whom she was working that day, managed to find the man but couldn’t lift him from the water. ‘We held on to him until the Tower lifeboat arrived,’ she says. ‘I remember how hard it was, and how helpful they were. We wouldn’t have been able to save him without them. I signed up as a volunteer after that.’

Tower Lifeboat Station, the busiest Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) station in the UK, sits on the north side of the Thames under Waterloo Bridge. Ten full-time crew members and 55 volunteers work shifts to staff it 24/7, 365 days a year. It takes just 90 seconds after a call for help for the team to be ready to launch.

It might surprise you that, while the RNLI has lifeboat stations in many coastal towns, a whopping 
5 percent of its launches take place here in central London. In fact, the Tower lifeboat team has rescued nearly 2,000 people and its service extends beyond just human lives. One weekend, a man and his dog went for a walk along the Thames. The tide was quite low, but rising fast, and suddenly Romeo, a staffordshire bull terrier, found himself stranded on the beach with his owner unable to get to him. ‘I have two dogs myself, so it was nice to reunite them,’ says McGlinchey.

The team’s work could be in trouble, though. The constant ebb and flow of the Thames has caused irreversible damage to the RNLI building and the pier it sits beside. The institution has now launched an appeal to raise funds for a new station.‘We need one that is comfortable enough for the crew to basically live in,’ says McGlinchey. She and other team members work in 12-hour shifts. ‘A room for CPR, a kit-drying room, but also a better kitchen: an environment where we can have our meals. It’s like being a family.’

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Soon you’ll be able to get a riverboat from London to Kent.

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