Not many of us can say we’ve saved a life. But for Elissa Thursfield, a solicitor from Abersoch in Wales, it’s become a part of her routine. She works full time as an employment lawyer, but is also a volunteer for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, and has to be available 24 hours a day, ready to respond to a cry for help any time of the day or night.
“I might be on the way into work and have to turn the car around and head towards the lifeboat station,” says Elissa, 29. “If I can get in touch with my boss before I get on the boat I will do, but if I don’t turn up they know something has happened.”
“If I get a night call, I just think, ‘Oh God, if this goes on all night I’m not going to get any sleep!’ The firm are amazing though, they don’t make me take it as annual leave and are more than happy for me to go and do this.”
A new BBC series which starts this week, Saving Lives At Sea, follows crew members from RNLI stations up and down the country as they are called out to rescue all manner of casualties – from a concussed spear fisherman on the North Wales coast, to students who have jumped naked into the River Thames in London while high on drugs, to a 12-year-old boy scout who has suffered a spinal injury after falling on a coasteering trip near Newquay.
The job is not for the faint-hearted.
“You’ve got to be passionate about it,” says Elissa. “You’re out in the rough seas and the wind and the weather and you’re getting cold and sometimes working in frightening scenarios.”
“Anything can go wrong when you’re out on the water. You have to respect the sea – nobody is immune to trouble regardless of what vessel you’re in.”
Elissa – whose partner Fritz also volunteers at Abersoch station – joined the RNLI at 18 years old. “I come from a sailing family, and have been involved in watersports ever since I was a child,” says Elissa, who grew up near Manchester but spent weekends and holidays sailing at the family’s holiday home in North Wales. “I had spent so much time on the water that the RNLI was just part of the culture I grew up in.”
“You don’t need a maritime background to join, but often my understanding of the wind and the way sailing boats work can be an advantage.”
Inevitably, it causes disruption to her life – she must keep a pager with her at all times which signals whenever there is an emergency at sea.
“However far I am from the station, if I’m in range for the pager to go off I’ll respond,” she says.
Her most dramatic rescues came during the time she spent in Cumbria before the Christmas of 2015, when torrential floods hit the region, putting the lives of thousands of families at risk.
“It was completely exhilarating and at times very frightening,” she says. “We’d driven up through the night and went out straight away to the first call – a bungalow where the family were taking refuge on the tops of bunk beds and on kitchen counters.”
“They couldn’t get out because there was fast flowing water rising up either side of the house and pounding on the walls. It was cold and dark and they’d been in there for hours.”
“We weren’t able to launch any boats because the water was moving so fast but a man in a passing tractor offered to help us so we waded chest deep in water to and from the tractor to get them all out.”
Elissa spent four days up in Cumbria, rescuing people from their homes as the region was battered by relentless storms.
What is abundantly clear from the TV series is that programme is that the work the RNLI stations do is paramount to the safety of our waterside communities, whether they be the floodplains of Cumbria or the idyllic postcard villages of the Cornish coast.
And it’s a job Elissa sees herself doing for life. “I want to be the first female helm at our station,” she says. “It’s something I’ve built my life around.”
Saving Lives at Sea starts on BBC One on 13 July at 9pm
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Source: The Telegraph