Lifeboats, bravery and duty


Adventure and bravery have been very much in the news recently:.


•  Around 50 years ago Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing were the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest.


•  Not long ago Pen Hadow reached the North Pole, having spent over two months walking, swimming, skiing and crawling almost 500 miles alone, in temperatures down to minus 45 degrees Celsius.


•  But today I want to tell you about another remarkable man, who was interviewed recently on the radio about his work as a lifeboatman.   This lifeboatman is called Mark Sawyer.  


One evening last October Mr Sawyer was just getting ready to have some supper when the phone rang.   A yacht was in difficulties off the coast of Eastbourne, where he lived.   After a fine clear afternoon, the wind had suddenly strengthened to gale force – force 8 – and there was a yacht which had not made it to harbour in time.   He quickly telephoned some other lifeboatmen and went down to the lifeboat shed with all speed.   He saw for himself how dangerous the conditions were out in the sea beyond the harbour.   The waves were 3 metres high; it was low tide, so parts of the harbour entrance were extremely shallow, and a boat could easily run aground.   He also remembered that there was a sunken wreck just outside the harbour, which an incoming boat could easily run into.   And moreover – it was dark – pitch black, with no moon to give even a little light.


The  yacht which was in trouble should really have stayed outside the harbour entrance until the gale subsided.   But instead the crew tried to come in to safety.   By this time lifeboatman Sawyer and his men had launched the lifeboat and were trying to get as near to the yacht as possible.   Conditions were appalling, with waves breaking over the lifeboat – which, like the yacht, was only about 4 metres long.   Then they noticed that the yacht was spinning round.   It had run aground on a sandbank.   The crew – a man and a woman – were getting desperate.   Sawyer and his men tried to throw ropes to the crew of the yacht, but each time they were blown away by the wind.   Finally Sawyer told one of his men to fire a rocket-propelled line towards the yacht – fire it directly at the man on the yacht, he said, and let’s hope that he’ll catch it.  


Amazingly, he did.   He struggled to tie the rope to the bows of the yacht, and the lifeboat began to tow it out to deeper and safer water.   But their luck didn’t last.   A huge wave knocked the yacht over and the mast and sail, already in tatters, lay flat in the water.   The man and the woman were thrown into the fearsome sea. Amazingly, Sawyer’s men managed to get a rope to the woman, who after a determined struggle clambered aboard the lifeboat, exhausted.   But the man was still in the sea, bobbing around in the waves, looking – as far as they could see in the dark – barely conscious.   One of the lifeboatmen leapt into the heaving waters.   He grasped hold of the man, but couldn’t bring him close enough to the lifeboat to get him aboard. It finally took four men to drag him up over the side of the lifeboat to safety.


But they weren’t in fact yet safe.   One tremendous wave then broke right over the lifeboat, swamping the crew.   One of them was sucked over the side – and only through the presence of mind of the woman who’d just been rescued, who grabbed hold of him, was he kept from being lost in the cauldron of foam.  


The lifeboat did, then, make it back to shore, the rescuers and the rescued exhausted and lucky to be alive.   Lifeboatman Sawyer was later awarded a silver medal for gallantry, and lifeboatman who jumped into the sea to rescue the drowning man was awarded a bronze medal.


When I heard Lifeboatman Sawyer interviewed on the radio, two things struck me in particular.   First, his modesty.   There no sign at all of any desire for fame, glamour, or celebrity status.   And second, the fact that he said ‘I was only doing my job’.   In fact – it wasn’t even a job he was paid to do – he and his crew, like most lifeboatmen, are volunteers, and do their work as an act of service, freely given.  


Reading – Luke 17. 7-10


That’s a rather unusual and not very well known reading from the Bible.   But I chose it to be read today because it gives a similar message to those two points that struck me about Lifeboatman Sawyer.   When we do something for God, we should do it because that’s what God wants from us, not because we will benefit ourselves.   When we do something to help someone else, we should do it not for anything that we’ll get out of it, but because they need it. That’s in fact what that word ‘duty’ means, in the reading – something we should do for its own sake.   We aren’t lifeboatmen – but each of us CAN do our little bit to serve others and serve God – and in fact, by doing so, we become far better people than if we put ourselves first all the time.