Diary of a volunteer RNLI Press Officer: Sunk trawler brought home the sharp end of comms

The fourth entry in our series following the journey of RNLI trainee press officer Roz Ashton, in her own words, as she continues her training and sets out in the role. Ashton has lived around the world, worked in advertising and sailed across the Atlantic.

Now for the hard part of RNLI comms: Roz Ashton helped co-ordinate the response as the incident unfolded
Now for the hard part of RNLI comms: Roz Ashton helped co-ordinate the response as the incident unfolded

Volunteering for the RNLI conjures visions of team and togetherness – AKA, the crew. There’s no yellow in my wardrobe, but press releases stack up, social media flow is nourished, community dialogue tended and a sense of inclusion and being a valid part of the operation is weaving itself into my experience. Notwithstanding, the work of a press officer remains principally a solitary occupation.

Skirting the periphery provides impetus to seek out and seek in. I’m forever dreaming up my next excuse for a chat with lifeboat purpose: a ‘day in the life’ of a station in lockdown, ‘walkies’ top tips from our favourite safety-conscious canines, pitching features and, most recently, curating an art installation. Chiefly, this is a contented cruise. Occasionally, however, it is not.

A late November dawn was breaking over Seaford Bay. The open-water Seaford Mermaids gathered, as usual, on the shingle for their morning swim. I joined as the newly initiated, having been impressed and thrilled by their cold-water immersion when I’d met them earlier that week to hear about their impressive RNLI fundraising effort.

A shock to the system

The dip was brief; nonetheless, my cold fingers struggled with the drying and dressing process afterwards. Relief came in hot sips from my flask. Then we saw the lifeboat leaving Newhaven harbour. I checked my phone. There was the launch request and our Launch Authority top line for the service call. EPIRB [Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons] rang bad news.

By the time I got home, I learnt that the casualty vessel – a 45ft trawler – had sunk. The lifeboat was searching for its three, now missing, fishermen.

The enormity of the situation unravelled. This escalated quickly into a multi-agency search-and-rescue effort with 15 support vessels that included neighbouring RNLI stations, local commercial boats and private individuals from the community, as well as HM Coastguard land and air support.

This was my moment not to be a lonesome satellite but to lean into the cradle of the greater RNLI communications team.

Step one: check in with the duty press officer in the south east media office. If they hadn’t already received calls, they soon would. Step two: share as much information as possible. Step three: feel reassured by the experienced voice on the other end of the line – their helpful emotional distance from the event, and that they were with me and we would handle the hungry calls for information together.

As it turned out, the media were – in the majority – respectful of the boundaries. Our communications were contained in HM Coastguard’s press statements issued over the two days of the search.

'Strong sense of helplessness'

Meanwhile, I kept a rolling press release, which gave me some purpose. For the first time in my role I experienced a strong sense of helplessness. Ironing became my focus for the day, while running an inventory of the facts as I received them, checking and double-checking that I had tracked them correctly in my draft. Steam channelled out the creases, but I was way beyond tea towels, keeping busy as if this would in some way help smooth the situation.

Newhaven Lifeboat made only one brief social media post directly to the community at the end of a very long day of searching and directing other agencies in the search: that our thoughts that night would be with the missing men and their families and thanking the community for their support, which had included hot food left at the station for the crew. Our work was still in progress. At first light the lifeboat launched once again to resume the search, until stood down by HM Coastguard in the early afternoon.

One of the fishermen was found clinging to a lifebuoy and was recovered from the water by the lifeboat on the first day of the search; but the vessel's other two crewmen were, tragically, lost at sea.

Roz Ashton is a trainee Lifeboat press officer at Newhaven RNLI

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