Though he’s still only 24, Willoughby Matthews has been an enthusiastic volunteer with the RNLI for almost half his life.  Here he describes his passion for being on the water and for being a part of the lifesaving organisation that is celebrating a milestone 200th anniversary this year.

Growing up in Cowes and being the son of a keen sailor meant there was always a pretty good chance that Willoughby would discover his sea legs early on in life.

In fact his first experience of sailing with his dad Pete was at the tender age of four or five – and he says he was hooked from that day on.

He quickly developed a confidence about being on the water, and refined his skills at the local sailing club, where he would spend much of his free time, becoming a familiar face around the friendly waterfront community.

“Cowes is a small place and everyone pretty much knows everyone else” he says.

Indeed, one of the flag officers at the sailing club happened to be the Operations Manager at Cowes Lifeboat Station, and when he mentioned that the station needed some help with building a website, Willoughby, then a 14 year-old pupil at Medina College, agreed to lend a hand.

“I put something quite simple together for the website and from that they thought I was some sort of tech wizard!” he laughs.  “I wasn’t really though”.

Back in the old days of the 1960s and 70s, a young, would-be lifeboat volunteer might typically start from the bottom and prove their worth by polishing the brass.  Nowadays, it’s more likely to involve helping with a website. Photo: Willoughby (left) with brother Josh

After his website success, Willoughby took on some volunteer admin duties for the station, and then at the age of 17, was thrilled to be able to roll up his sleeves and join the shore crew.  A pager-carrying role, this involved  helping to launch and then recover the boat – a task for three people –  and cleaning it.

He also helped to co-ordinate the all-important training schedules for the station’s 50 operational volunteers, as well as getting involved with fundraisers.

Finally, in 2021 – after all the disruptions of Covid – he at last got to achieve his dream and join the lifeboat crew, working right on the front line.

“I was starting to think it would never happen, so it felt like a really nice achievement when I finally made it” he says.

First call

Not surprisingly, Willoughby distinctly remembers his first call out:  at 6pm on a Friday evening in June, to a yacht somewhere between Gurnard and Cowes that was taking on water, with the crew attempting to pump it out in buckets.

“We arranged for an emergency lift straight onto a crane and stopped it sinking” he recalls.  Then, to add to the difficulty of the situation, one of the yacht’s crew members began to show signs of a heart attack.  This called for the assistance of Coastguard rescue and an ambulance team, who ensured the man’s emergency transfer to hospital.

As on many other occasions, the lifeboat team ended their shift hoping that the man made a good recovery – but often they will not know the outcome of their rescue efforts.

“It’s always nice when we do hear back” he says, “and it makes the job even more rewarding.  We have a folder full of cards and thankyou letters back at the station, from people we have helped”.

One grateful visit they received was from the widow of a man the lifeboat crew had rescued from a yacht, again after a heart attack. The dramatic rescue effort involved having to clear the beach at Newtown Creek of barbecue parties, to allow access for a helicopter and paramedic to render emergency aid.

Sadly the man did not survive, but a few months later his widow visited the station to personally express her thanks to the lifeboat crew for their efforts.

Experiences like that can make the job emotionally, as well as physically tough for the crew members.

Train hard, work easy

“Yes it can be a difficult job from that point of view, but that’s where our training comes in” says  Willoughby.  “We train hard and work easy.  If you’re not comfortable with a specific job, you just say and another crew member can take over”

He says that some of the most difficult jobs involve searches in the middle of the night.  Or having to speak to family members who have just lost a loved one in some tragic incident.

The job does have its lighter moments though, such as the recent rescue of a much-loved pet cat that  managed to get itself trapped under a pontoon, and could be heard mewing plaintively.

“We’re not here to rescue animals but in this case we were worried that the owners might try to get in the water and rescue it” he says.

So the crew set about removing a metal sheet from the edge of the pontoon, at which point the cat promptly shot out and ran for dear life.  Afterwards, the crew received a heartfelt thank-you message from the owners, who were glad to have their pet back home after its escapade.

More commonly – and it happened particularly during the Covid lockdowns – the crew can be called out to search for missing people, often in distressing mental health-related incidents.

Lifeboat crew members support each other through such tough assignments, and Willoughby says this helps to bond them as “a kind of weird, dysfunctional family”.

“Through being part of this team, I’ve met people I would never have met in regular day-to-day life” he explains.  “We have people from every type of background – engineers to senior civil servants, manual workers to lawyers and teachers.  We train together, work together, and get to know each other incredibly well”.

A life on the waves

As well as the hours he spends at the lifeboat station, Willoughby’s leisure time and working life is also spent mainly on the water.  He’s involved at Cowes Corinthian Yacht Club as well as Gurnard Sailing Club, and is keen to dismiss the common notion that sailing is somehow elitist or middle-class.  He points to the work of UKSA , which encourages youngsters from all backgrounds to ‘test the water’.

As for work, he’s managed to turn his lifelong passion into his job.  Having originally considered the obvious options for a “grown up job” such as the Navy or Merchant Navy, he spent some time working on passenger boats and now literally lives his dream by working as a freelance sailing instructor in locations all over the world.

“I decided to opt for travel, experiences and fun” he says of his offbeat job.

It means that all in all, he is rarely away from the water, which he says will always be his natural environment.

“Being on the water, you’re somehow detached from the real world” he says. “It could all be ending and you’d have no idea.  It’s totally isolated, away from the 24/7.

“I’d say that, for me, there’s no problem that can’t be solved by going on the water.”

As for his lifeboat role, he’d encourage anyone to consider it. . Although they would need to live within a few minutes walking, cycling or driving distance from the station for when that emergency pager goes off.

“It’s not for everyone” he says, “but it’s one of the most rewarding ways that you can give something back, learn some new skills and be part of a really good team”. “Just do it!”