- A Poet Helms the Lifeboat
like startled sea beasts tethered to Land, boats moored at the jetties wrench and heave on their berthing lines. The metal clanging of stays beats a Morse code on rigging, a warning to mariners that the wind is getting up. It's a perfect day to take the lifeboat crew down to Parker's Point to practice rough-weather boat handling and familiarize them with the lake.
Our lifeboat station is located on the grounds of Lough Derg Yacht Club in Dromineer Village, midway down the eastern shore of Lough Derg in County Tipperary. There are two Lough Dergs in Ireland; one in Donegal is a site of pilgrimage, and ours, the impenitent Lough Derg, is the lowest and largest lake on the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland. The lake is twenty-seven miles long, two miles across on narrow stretches, and bounded by three counties: Tipperary on the eastern shore, Clare to the west, and Galway to the north.
Most recruits to the lifeboat have no previous nautical experience, and though some have lived close to Lough Derg all their lives, their first time on the water might be as a volunteer lifeboat crew. As part of their training, they must know the lake as intimately as they know the faces of those they love. I tell them that our lake is feminine, pagan, and remorseless when she is not shown respect.
My name is Eleanor Hooker. I am a poet, writer, and lifeboat woman. I began my career as an intensive care nurse and midwife. I've been sailing since I was twenty, and I joined the lifeboat when it first came to Dromineer in 2003. I am now one of the senior helms and the press officer for our station. Volunteers on the lifeboat hail from all backgrounds, though I may well be the only poet volunteer in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). My background in intensive care equips me to deal with the many difficult situations we encounter on rescues. [End Page 7]
Fear is a rabid creature. When we bring the lifeboat up to a boat in difficulty, often the people on board are barely able to contain their dread; they want to hand it over: "take this thing from us," they seem to say. With the wind howling through rigging and their vessel splintering on rocks, our job is to not let terror move around the boat like a contagion, infecting rescuers and those being rescued. We must remain calm or all is lost. Fleetness too is of the essence. If we cannot bring people to safety in their own boat, we take them onto the lifeboat and run.
On one rescue at the northern end of the lake, we saw on approach that the casualty boat was breaking up on rocks. After a couple of attempts, we managed to get alongside them. The helm positioned the lifeboat nose out to the lake for a quick getaway. There were five silent people on board, with only four life jackets.
Fright either silences or encourages a pressure of speech. We determine stress levels by observing the nonverbal signs: dilated pupils, hyperventilation, pallor.
We passed over a survivor life jacket for the fifth person. With one crew member on the bow of the casualty vessel, I placed myself in the bow of the lifeboat. We coordinated with the helm to ensure we didn't lose anyone into the water during transfer. We called out brief, clear instructions. The helm was concentrating on holding the lifeboat in position in an effort to match the rise
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[End Page 8] and fall of the casualty boat. As the lifeboat rose to the lip of the casualty vessel, we got each passenger to step across quickly. We were careful not to move them on the fall, which could cause them to get crushed between both boats as the lifeboat dropped away beneath their feet. Each time the lifeboat fell off a wave we heard...