Most people never have the chance to go on board an RNLI lifeboat except in the most dire of circumstances.

But The Argus was invited to join the volunteer crew in Newhaven and do just that to mark the charity’s 200th anniversary on Monday.

First we had to be suitably kitted out so my colleague Andrew Gardner and I were taken down to a cloakroom as some of the crew watched the service of thanksgiving for the RNLI at Westminster Abbey on television.

It was quite tricky putting on the yellow overalls, jacket and a life preserver in case we ended up finding ourselves in difficulty - of course the crew have to do it in double quick time.

The Argus: The cloakroom full of yellow jackets and overalls at the lifeboat stationThe cloakroom full of yellow jackets and overalls at the lifeboat station (Image: The Argus)

We jumped aboard the lifeboat, the largest in the RNLI’s fleet and we were taken below decks for a brief tour.

We were shown where survivors are taken following an incident, with hatches to help those on stretchers and seats to keep them secure while out at sea, especially in stormy conditions.

A hatch was opened and we were taken through to a hot engine room, where two twin marine diesel engines stood on either side of a somewhat narrow walkway.

The two engines can send the lifeboat speeding to the scene of an incident at a moment’s notice at up to 25 knots, about 30mph.

As midday approached, we emerged onto the deck just as a horn was sounded. RNLI crews across the country were also sounding their horns to mark the historic anniversary.

Not long after the crew was hard at work, loosening ropes as we set off out to sea.

Even on such a calm day and with the protection of the harbour walls, the lifeboat still rocked up and down as we went further out. I had to hold onto some of the metal railings to avoid falling over.

At one point, I looked down onto the deck and saw what I thought was a body.

“That’s just Fred,” one crew member said reassuringly. “Fred” is a training doll used in their exercises.

The Argus: 'Fred' the training doll on the deck of the lifeboat'Fred' the training doll on the deck of the lifeboat (Image: The Argus)

As we exited the harbour, the crew throttled the engine and we sped out towards the Channel at speed.

On such a clear spring day, it was an exhilarating experience as we ploughed through the waves, although I had to hold on tight to prevent myself from being thrown from one side of the lifeboat to the other.

When we returned to port, I had the chance to speak to some of the crew about their experiences and why they chose to volunteer to save lives.

The Argus: Lewis Arnold is among the lifesaving crew at Newhaven RNLILewis Arnold is among the lifesaving crew at Newhaven RNLI (Image: The Argus/Andrew Gardner)

From helping those cut off by the tide to saving a floating cinema, RNLI coxswain Lewis Arnold has dealt with his fair share of incidents.

The 37-year-old joined as a teenager and has since served in Portsmouth, at the Thames station in London and now at the Newhaven Lifeboat Station, giving up his career as an engineer to work full-time for the RNLI.

He is one of 24 everyday heroes at the station, who have all been marking the charity’s 200th anniversary.

The Argus: Lewis Arnold, right, with crewmates onboard the RNLI lifeboat in NewhavenLewis Arnold, right, with crewmates onboard the RNLI lifeboat in Newhaven (Image: The Argus/Andrew Gardner)

Lewis told The Argus: “It’s a great time to celebrate and commemorate the crews that were before us - sadly some of them lost their lives - as well as being a chance to inspire future generations of life-saving crews around the country.”

'I thought he had drowned'

Lewis may be known to some eagle-eyed viewers of the BBC show Saving Lives at Sea, which has documented some of the shouts he and his fellow crew have attended in and around Newhaven.

In one rescue on Christmas Eve 2021, featured on the show, the Newhaven RNLI team saved a paraglider who was minutes away from drowning after landing on a small beach and finding his escape route cut off by the incoming tide.

The Argus: Paraglider Dermot Ryan with the lifeboat crew who saved his life, including Lewis Arnold (right)Paraglider Dermot Ryan with the lifeboat crew who saved his life, including Lewis Arnold (right) (Image: RNLI)

Lewis recalled: “When we first arrived on the scene, I thought he had drowned.

“There’s no feeling quite like bringing someone home safe to their families - especially at Christmas.”

Lewis was one of two members of the crew later awarded with commendations for their part in the rescue.

'Gut-wrenching and heartbreaking'

Lewis has also volunteered with the flood team which he said is a very different experience to coastal rescues.

He said: “While no one goes out with the idea of getting into trouble, you definitely don’t want to get into trouble sitting in your front room.

“Floods can happen in rural areas in the middle of nowhere, all of a sudden the water is rising above your front door. Nobody wants to be in that situation.

“It was more gut-wrenching and heartbreaking to see the devastation that the flood impact causes and the urgency of that work.”

In particular, he recalled the floods in Cockermouth in Cumbria in 2009, which saw RNLI volunteers assist with efforts to rescue people trapped in their homes.

Lewis said: “It’s just phenomenal with the devastation it causes - you’re seeing people’s homes and everything just floating around.”

'You could see that relief that there was help coming'

Even as the RNLI marks its 200th anniversary, there is no rest for their team of volunteers.

Crews from Newhaven Lifeboat were called to assist a yacht in difficulty on Sunday evening after an engine failure.

The Argus: RNLI crews in Newhaven were called to assist the yacht in difficultyRNLI crews in Newhaven were called to assist the yacht in difficulty (Image: RNLI/Daniel Moon)

Lewis said: “You could see the relief that there was some help coming.

“There’s obviously good jobs and bad jobs, but most of the time people are always happy to see us because they need some help and that’s where we come in.

“It’s incredibly rewarding when we have to go out and do this sort of stuff and see people.”

'Our partners are the real unsung heroes'

The Argus: Lewis Arnold with the RNLI crew in NewhavenLewis Arnold with the RNLI crew in Newhaven (Image: The Argus/Andrew Gardner)

The nature of the work means crews can be called out at a moment’s notice.

“Weddings, funerals, birthday parties, cinemas, meals out - all sorts of stuff that the crew are able to stop doing at a moment’s notice when the pager goes off,” Lewis said.

“We are very fortunate, we’ve got 24 really good dedicated volunteers. They are able to juggle their lives and family commitments and still be able to respond.

“Sometimes we’ve had pagers go off at 9pm at night and we’ve got back at 8am the following morning and you’ve missed a whole night’s sleep at home with the family.

“The unsung heroes of what we actually do are the partners who put up with us running out when the dinner is about to be served or not being able to go to that school assembly.”

'Call us early'

The Argus: Lewis Arnold and the RNLI crew at Newhaven HarbourLewis Arnold and the RNLI crew at Newhaven Harbour (Image: The Argus/Andrew Gardner)


Lewis urged anyone interested in volunteering to join and said: “The vast majority of the current serving crew don’t come from seafaring or maritime backgrounds. 

“We’ve got builders, bakers, cabinet makers, architects, accountants - so many different careers and we’re able to pull them all together with world-class training and go out and save lives.

“They can be sitting typing away, go out, do what we do, and within two hours they’re back at work again and no one’s any the wiser.”

To those who might find themselves in difficulty when going out on the water or along the coast, Lewis had one very clear message.

“Call us early," he said. "It’s better for us to be there and not be needed than needed and being too late.”