In the footsteps of heroes - what is life like as a lifeboat coxswain?

New Wells lifeboat coxswain Nicky King. Picture: RNLI Wells Lifeboat Station

New Wells lifeboat coxswain Nicky King. Picture: RNLI Wells Lifeboat Station - Credit: Archant

Nicky King is tending to the lifeboat in Wells, making sure she is in good shape as he and his crew could be called out at a moment's notice to save lives off the Norfolk coast.

Mr King is the coxswain at Wells, the figurehead for the staff and volunteers for the RNLI Wells, watching over the sea.

The role of the coxswain is thought of highly. A prestigious title with a heroic past - but for Mr King, it is just his job.

RNLI and RSPB staff in Wells-next-the-Sea

Paul Davis, RSPB North Suffolk Little Tern Project Officer; Chris Hardy, Wells RNLI Lifeboat Operations Manager; Alice Skehel, RSPB Little Tern Project Manager; Nicky King, Wells RNLI Coxswain/Mechanic. - Credit: RNLI

“I think more people know who I am, and a few more people recognise me, and obviously there is an interest in the local community with the new boat I normally get quizzed for,” he said.

“I suppose, being part of the institution and the lifeboat you do not see it the same as people looking in.

“The public perception is different than for us being in the job, you could argue that.

"It is a huge responsibility, but I don’t look at it that way, because it is my job.”

Wells town councillor Peter Rainsford

Peter Rainsford, chairman for RNLI Wells - Credit: Archant

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Peter Rainsford, chairman for RNLI Wells, explains why the coxswain is thought of so highly.

“When the weather gets bad and boats head for safety ashore, a lifeboat is expected to put to sea,” he said.

“The lifeboat at Wells is an all-weather lifeboat and is expected to do just that.

“They are working in a crew of six people, who are putting their lives in the hands of each other, especially the coxswain's when they put to sea to help others.

"To this day, it is paramount that the coxswain carries the unquestioned respect of their crew.

“In a seaside community the lifeboats are a part of everybody’s life; the community supports the work of the lifeboat volunteers and the volunteers take strength from that support and provide essential life-saving cover at sea and on the beaches.

"The community follows what we do and they know the crew; it is not to say the coxswain is a figurehead, but they are the chosen leader of a highly respected group of volunteers.”

Mr King has been in the role for the last four years and joins a long list of celebrated men who have steered the ships through the most difficult of waters since 1869, with the first being Wells coxswain, R Smith.

That heroic tag can be associated with the tremendous efforts carried out by coxswains of yesteryear.

Among them was T Neilsen, who was awarded the thanks of the institution inscribed on Vellum for his gallantry in going aboard a crashed Lancaster bomber on July 14, 1942, to search for survivors, rescuing one airman.

The Lucy Lavers returns to port at Wells Quay after its anniversary of Dunkirk trip - The last coxsw

Legendary Wells lifeboat coxswain David Cox - Credit: Archant

There were also the heroics of David Cox, the legendary coxswain who passed away in April. He was a friend of Mr King, having worked with him at sea and alongside him in the RNLI.

Mr Cox served in the role between 1960 to 1986 and received five awards for courage, determination and excellent seamanship.

He was awarded the prestigious silver medal in February 1979 when he helped save a Romanian cargo ship, Savinesti, with 29 people on board - 11 miles off the coast.

Of course, behind their efforts are an equally heroic team.

Nicky King, coxswain RNLI Wells, speaking at David Cox's funeral at Cromer Crematorium. Picture: Dan

Nicky King, coxswain RNLI Wells, speaking at David Cox's funeral at Cromer Crematorium. - Credit: Danielle Booden

The crew features a second coxswain, and a deputy second coxswain, who work closely with each other, sharing stories of rescues past and the expertise which sees them through crises.

They still need the backing of their crew, as coxswains are voted in by the people they work alongside, according to Mr King.

“The argument is the crew have got to trust the coxswain and have to be willing to put his life in their hands," he added.

The 59--year-old is known as a coxswain mechanic, meaning he is always in the station, tending to the boat or any other issue.

It is fair to say there is saltwater coursing through his veins, having worked on the sea on fishing boats since the age of 12.

Nicky King, chairman of Wells and District Inshore Fishermen's Association, is worried about the imp

Nicky King, was the chairman of Wells and District Inshore Fishermen's Association - Credit: Matthew Usher

Since taking the role, Mr King remembers one rescue more than any other.

In November 2018, he and his crew mobilised to save the lives of five people at sea whose boat was sinking seven miles off the coast.

The crew managed to rescue all five, getting them out of the water, onto their vessel, and airlifted to the hospital.

It was only when he got back to base after the rescue was completed that he took stock of what he had witnessed.

“That pager goes off, you are never 100pc sure of what you'll until you get there,” he said.

RNLI Wells inshore and all-weather lifeboats were called after a speedboat sank off the Norfolk coast.

RNLI Wells inshore and all-weather lifeboats were called after a speedboat sank off the Norfolk coast. - Credit: RNLI

“Me and my crewmate both looked at each other and blew our cheeks out. In those situations you have been running on pure adrenaline.

“It took us 32 minutes from launch to getting back. I said, 'no way' - it seemed like an eternity getting to them.

“I took myself for a cigarette after to calm down because it was so close to being a lot worse than it turned out.”

The role is not just dangerous, but also demanding, with time away from family and friends an occupational hazard.

Mr King said he has been pulled away from everything over time, apart from his own wedding.

“The pager goes off, you go off, simple as that," he said.

A new lifeboat station is being built at Wells-next-the-Sea

A new lifeboat station is being built at Wells-next-the-Sea to house the Shannon class lifeboat to be called Duke of Edinburgh. - Credit: Wells RNLI

He is now managing the crew into the next chapter of the RNLI in Wells, overseeing the biggest transition for many years, with moving into a new lifeboat station and manning a new vessel.

He hopes that when people look back on the history of coxswains in Wells, he is remembered alongside the other legends to grace the role.

“I think you will always have big shoes to fill,” he said.

“You look back at them all, they all had big feet.

“You just hope that one day someone will be asking the same questions I’ve been asked about the men I followed.”

Coxswain roll call

  • 1869 - 1875     Coxswain R Smith
  • 1875 - 1879    Coxswain H Hinson
     Award thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum, 1942
  • 1879 - 1880    Coxswain R W Elsdon
  • 1880 - 1896    Coxswain H Hinson
  • 1896 - 1905    Coxswain W Crawford
  • 1905 - 1917    Coxswain T Stacey
  • 1917 - 1933    Coxswain W Grimes
  • 1933 - 1947    Coxswain T Neilsen
  • 1947 - 1960    Coxswain W Cox
    Awarded thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum, 1955
  • 1960 - 1986    Coxswain D J Cox
     Bronze medal awarded to Second Coxswain F Taylor
    Awarded thanks of the Institution inscribed on Vellum, 1964
    Century Vellum awarded to station, 1969
    Awarded silver medal in recognition of his courage, determination and seamanship, 1979
    Awarded bronze medal awarded to Coxswain David Cox in recognition of the courage determination and seamanship, 1981
  • 1986 - 1989    Coxswain A T Jordan
  • 1989 - 1997    Coxswain G B Walker
    Framed letter of appreciation signed by the Chairman of the Institution was awarded to the all-weather lifeboat crew, 1996
  • 1997 - 2018    Coxswain A D Frary
     Received numerous commendations, including one for the rescue of the Dutch sailing vessel Albatros off Bob Hall's Sands and a velum award for rescuing a yacht caught on Wells Bar in heavy weather.
  • 2018 -      Coxswain N King