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Interview: Captain Neil Hardy, RNLI operations manager, Swanage

09 November 2018

‘Hopefully, we get a happy ending, but sometimes we don’t’

It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, a life at sea: put it that way. The Merchant Navy is finding it difficult now to get young people to leave home. I joined as a cadet, in 1967, spent a year at nautical college, and worked on ships that went all round the world to various exotic places.

Thereafter, I married in 1973, and had a different perception of my rather selfish roamings. So, in 1975, I started work for P&O Ferries, and ran a brand-new ferry, running across the North Sea, for about 25 years. When my family were grown up, I got a job for Condor Ferries based in St Malo.

“In command” means you’ve achieved your Master’s Certificate of Competency, which entitles you to command virtually anything, from a small ship to the very largest bulk carriers and passenger ships. There’s a specialised ship-handling course for a ferry, because we have to do our own pilotage. I had to learn Swedish when we were running to Sweden, to speak to the harbour authorities in their own language, which was a challenge.

You have a multi-million-pound asset and all the lives on board for which you are responsible. We used to say: if you completed the voyage with no paperwork, the voyage was a success. Naturally, most people don’t like writing reports; so you were very diligent in conducting your business.

Being in command of a ferry is totally different from a large cruise ship, because they usually have a captain and staff captain. So, if senior captain’s been up all night in fog, the staff captain can relieve him and he can get some sleep. On a ferry, you don’t have that luxury: you grab some sleep in port, and turn round again six hours later.

There are anything up to 600 people on board, expecting you to get them from A to B on time, with the least discomfort possible. I’d go up on the bridge and physically manoeuvre the vessel clear of the dock and out to sea, let the officer take over for the actual passage, and go back on the bridge to dock the ship.

My family have lived in Swanage since 1756. My grandfather was in the Navy all his life, and served at the Battle of Jutland. My uncles were at sea, and one was coxswain of the lifeboat for many years, and his brother was operations manager.

It’s very disruptive to family life, and my time at the Falkland Islands in 1982 was very stressful for all of us. Daily life in retirement is very mundane, but I’ve just been elected a council member of the RNLI; so there is still plenty to do. And I have three grown-up daughters, and five grandchildren.

I’ve been running the lifeboat service here for more than 30 years. My family, particularly my wife, had to put up with my frequent absences from important events. Being at sea as a career hasn’t helped, and I couldn’t do this without their understanding, help, and commitment. This must be recognised at all times, as it not only applies to me personally but to all other RNLI crew and volunteers. Yes — we’re all volunteers.

Our main line of business is yachtsman and small-boat owners who get into trouble for a variety of reasons. A lot this year got caught on lobster pots and fishing gear. Then there are very small boats like sailing dinghies that capsize, or people get into trouble cliff-climbing, and there are searches for vulnerable people who’ve gone missing. Hopefully, we get a happy ending, but sometimes we don’t.

My proudest moment was receiving the MBE from the Queen at Windsor Castle, but it’s really for all the members of the crew. It’s a very large commitment from a small number of people in Swanage, who have their own businesses and livings to make. I’m extremely grateful that lots of people in the community give a lot to the RNLI so that we can go out and save life at sea. In my time, the lifeboat has saved 200 people.

I’m the operations manager. I cover all the admin for the station from an operational point of view, making sure that the boat goes out to sea with no defects; and I’m also the launching authority for Swanage. So, I’m the first point of contact for the lifeguard, but I have deputies, which allowed me to carry on my career when I was still working, and to have holidays.

I crossed the North Sea over 25 years in a variety of weather conditions from flat calm to a 100mph gale. When you’re in command and the weather is fairly awful, you’re trying to keep a ship in a straight line using all your skill and experience. When the sea’s coming towards you 15 to 20 metres high, every member of the crew looks to you to keep them safe and sound.

When you analyse it afterwards (I don’t profess to be the worlds’ greatest seafarer, though I have considerable knowledge and experience, but I’m a frail human being), someone else must have been standing on my shoulder, and that’s when you develop a faith. I’ve had engineers on the bridge look out wide-eyed with fear, asking “Oh my God, are we going to get through this?” If you’ve been brought up in a Christian way, you naturally assume that God is on your side. My faith developed from experience that there’s something or somebody else guiding me in adverse times.

I have refused to take a ship to sea. One day, an intense depression came down the North Sea. I’d once been in a very serious incident in the North Sea prior to being in command; so I know what could go wrong, and how it could go wrong. I refused to sail. Then I had my fleet manager on the phone, asking “Why aren’t you sailing?”, because we were taking raw materials to factories in Sweden. I told him that we might damage the cargo, and possibly the ship, but, if we waited 12 hours, we could successfully carry out the voyage. He said that he was being leaned on, and phoned me three times, threatening to sack me — but I held my ground. That day, a friend tried to get from Denmark to Aberdeen, but had to reload his cargo at Hull, and he told me that I’d done the right thing.

Ferry companies, when the weather does get bad, are now more likely to wait, because of discomfort to passengers or damage to cargo. It’s a prudent way to run your company.

I’m the launching authority for our all-weather or inshore lifeboat, but the helmsman or coxswain can refuse, and I will accept his or her decision. There are certain conditions in Swanage Bay which make it hazardous, which I might not see from where I live; so I expect him to phone me or the coastguard if conditions on the slipway aren’t suitable. We can call a lifeboat from Yarmouth or Weymouth flag-stations for their all-weather life-boats — the largest in the RLNI fleet.

I’ve launched a lifeboat to take five people off a yacht when it was not without risk, and we got a bronze medal, but our equipment and training are second to none. The craft are designed to cope with extremes, and there aren’t any other conditions, other than an easterly gale, when the Swanage lifeboat wouldn’t launch.

My crew have diverse jobs that don’t relate to the sea, but they routinely carry out rough-weather exercises, and the coxswain and helmsman are very experienced. The boats are self-righting; so, if you’re inside the boat and it capsizes, it has always come upright; it’s a bit like an internal washing machine, and people are expected to be strapped into seats. Just restart the engine, and carry on. That’s what they’ve volunteered for, and I wouldn’t expect anything less of them.

We have a lady helmsman for our inshore lifeboat, and have three lady crew members, and we’re signing up a fourth. They’re very competent.

The most reassuring sound to me is birdsong.

My wife says that everything makes me angry: people being economical with the truth, inefficiency, and greed.

Sailing is my hobby. I have a 23-foot yacht on the river with my neighbour, and we do “gentleman’s sailing” up and down Poole harbour, put the kettle on, and have a piece of shortbread. It’s very peaceful. I like reading as well, but, having retired, I’m busier now than when I was at work.

I pray most for peace and guidance for all the world’s population.

I’m very much a realist. If I have hope for the future, then it is that all mankind will live in harmony. . . But I’m a realist.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Derek, a former neighbour. We can discuss any topic to any level, each giving contrary opinions, and still remain firm friends.

Captain Neil Hardy was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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