Cornwall Life meets Phil Shannon from the Sennen Cove Lifeboat

PUBLISHED: 00:16 22 December 2010 | UPDATED: 18:19 20 February 2013

Photo Peter Puddiphatt

Photo Peter Puddiphatt

Phil Shannon has been associated with the Sennen Cove Lifeboat for 40 years. Lesley Double finds out about this seaman's life for Cornwall Life

Phil Shannon has been associated with the Sennen Cove Lifeboat for 40 years. Lesley Double finds out about this seamans life

So long as man shall continue to navigate the ocean, and the tempest shall hold course over the surface, in every age, and on every coast, disaster by sea, shipwreck and peril to human life must inevitably occur.

These are the words of Sir William Hillary, founder of the RNLI, in 1824. Despite advances in technology, this is just as true today as it was almost 200 years ago and a band of selfless men and women frequently brave the elements to save the lives of those in trouble on our seas.

The Sennen Cove Lifeboat Station is situated between Lands End and Cape Cornwall. There are nearly 20 crew members of the two lifeboats stationed there: the all-weather City of London III and an inshore lifeboat, as well as a dozen shore helpers, winchmen and launchers, and a further team containing a secretary, treasurer, doctor and public relations officer, all helping to make the station run like a well-oiled machine. Apart from Coxswain Terry George they are all volunteers.

Phillip Shannons life is inextricably tied up with the Sennen Cove Lifeboat. My parents ran the Beach Caf back in the 1950s, Phil explains, and I was always hanging around the boathouse with my friends. Occasionally the Coxswain, Henry Nicholas, would let us go inside and look over the boat. Every time the maroons went off, we would rush to the boathouse and watch the launch.

By the time Phil was a teenager, he was helping, waiting while the lifeboat was called out on a rescue or shout, and making himself useful in the boathouse. He worked for his parents in the caf, so was always ready to run from one end of the Cove to the other when the maroons sounded. When I was about 17 or 18, the then Coxswain, Eric Pengilly, asked if I would like to join the crew, and I jumped at the chance, says Phil. I am proud to say that I have been associated with the Sennen Cove Lifeboat for 40 years.

Phil admits that being a member of the Lifeboat crew is a big part of his life and if he had not had the support of his family he doubts whether he could have continued. His wife, Lynne, has never known any other way and supports him totally, even when the weather is bad or he is called to yet another incident or crew training. Phil and Lynne have three children, Dan, Joanne and Jack, and as soon as they were old enough, the two boys also became members of the crew: Dan is now Deputy 2nd Coxswain and Jack is a crew member, when he is home from his job on a charter yacht cruising between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

Most incidents we have to deal with are run of the mill, where a boat has lost engine power for example, and we just have to tow it back to a safe harbour, continues Phil, although the odd incident is more challenging. This has got to be an understatement, as Phil was a member of the crew during the Tungufoss incident in 1981, when an Icelandic vessel hit problems in extreme weather conditions, forcing a rescue that was so dangerous and daring that the men of the lifeboat crew were awarded the RNLI Silver Medal. Phil was also on the lifeboat when it tried to get round Lands End on that fateful night in December 1981 to assist the crew of the Penlee Lifeboat, the Solomon Browne. Sadly the Sennen Cove Lifeboat could not help and all lives on the Solomon Browne were lost.

Despite these perils, Phil says that he is still as keen as ever. We have a new lifeboat, the City of London III, and what a boat it is! comments Phil. It can travel at 25 knots, whereas the old one could only manage seven or eight knots, so we can get to a shout much quicker. The boat carries seven crew, and they all have to be strapped in as we go so fast. Theres a lot of camaraderie in the boathouse and on the boat too, but some situations are serious, especially when we have to deal with a tragedy.

In the summer of 2010, Phil was made an MBE in the Queens Birthday Honours List, in recognition of his long service to the Sennen Cove Lifeboat over so many years. I was very proud to get this award, says Phil, and Lynne, Dan, Jack and I had a wonderful day at Buckingham Palace last October. So many people recognised the RNLI tie I was wearing and spoke to me. There is a good feeling about the lifeboats, and people appreciate the work we do. The sea can be a hostile environment, especially in the dark and in extreme weather conditions. I really wouldnt be able to do this work without support, not just from my family, but from the people I work with, who, as soon as my pager goes off, know that I will be out of the door, perhaps for the rest of the day. Being a lifeboatman involves everyone.

Thank goodness for men like Phil and the other members of the many lifeboat crews around the county. Who knows when we may need them.

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