“FOR those in peril on the sea”.

The last line of the mariners’ hymn and a reminder of why the Royal National Lifeboat Institution exists. This extraordinary organisation, crewed by generations of volunteers, is celebrating 200 years of rescuing people from watery depths and muddy estuaries, tide and tempest, cliffs and foreshore, and increasingly from criminality, personal travail and sheer stupidity.

Why do men and women voluntarily risk their own lives without career, financial, or social reward?

The RNLI has been in Weston-super-Mare since 1882 when Colonel William Holt bequeathed £450 to provide a davit-launched boat on Birnbeck Island.

The first “shout” summoned local fishermen into service when SS Welsh Prince fouled her propeller and began drifting towards Sand Bay on an increasingly rough sea. Forty passengers were rescued.

Weston Mercury: William James Holt - Weston's first lifeboat 1882-89.William James Holt - Weston's first lifeboat 1882-89. (Image: JCH Collection)

Rescues are all noteworthy but some really do battle against the odds. On a clear day we can see the new Hinkley Point power station taking shape down channel but, as the old power station was arising from the murky shoreline, disaster struck on October 21 1957, when seven workmen found themselves stuck on a drilling platform far offshore with a dangerously rough sea, rising tide, darkness and no chance of rescue by contractor’s boat or helicopter.

Fifi and Charles was launched with Coxswain Alfred ‘Juicy’ Payne at the helm (his flatner boat can be seen in Weston Museum). Payne had to manoeuvre the lifeboat between scaffolding legs and on each roll of a wave entice workmen to jump, one by one, into the boat.

Five hours later, rescuers and rescued stepped onto Birnbeck Pier; wet, cold but alive. When she retired after 29 years’ service that noble vessel had saved 83 lives. 

Weston Mercury: Anna Stock - the new breed of fast inshore lifeboats, acquired 2008.Anna Stock - the new breed of fast inshore lifeboats, acquired 2008. (Image: RNLI)

The last big lifeboat, Calouste Gulbenkian, could accommodate seven crew and 35 passengers but since 1966 much faster and highly manoeuvrable inshore craft have been on duty at Weston.

And they really are needed, for this is now the Channel’s busiest station.

When Birnbeck Pier became insurmountably dangerous in 2014, crews transferred to a pair of make-do shipping containers at Knightstone. No matter how modern new station facilities might become on the restored pier, one thing will remain as ever: men and women racing from home or work in response to a shout, knowing their safe return is likely but never guaranteed.

Weston Mercury: RNLI flag at Knightstone.RNLI flag at Knightstone. (Image: JCH Collection)

In recognition of the RNLI’s outstanding service, Honorary Freedom of the Town has been conferred by Weston Town Council and at 4.30 pm on Mothering Sunday, March 10, the crew, led by Weston Sea Cadet Band, will parade from Knightstone to the Grand Pier where Rear-Admiral Ian Moncrief deputy Lieutenant of Somerset will take the salute.

Weston Mercury: Calouste Gulbenkian - last of the big boats stationed at Weston 1962-69.Calouste Gulbenkian - last of the big boats stationed at Weston 1962-69. (Image: RNLI)

There’ll be a ‘sail past’ of lifeboats followed by well-deserved civic refreshment for crew and cadets in the pier’s Tiffany Room.