New recruits get onboard with Oban lifeboat

Oban lifeboat new recruits Gillies Pagan and Andy Lockwood have almost finished their initial training despite facing the challenge of Covid restrictions.

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A skipper and a property agent who responded to Oban lifeboat’s call out for volunteer recruits just before Covid struck, have already taken part in more than 50 rescues between them.

Despite the virus and restrictions brought in to curb it, Andy Lockwood and Gillies Pagan have almost finished their initial training.

Property agent Gillies Pagan wanted to give something back to the Oban community by volunteering with Oban lifeboat
Boat skipper Andy Lockwood signed up as a new volunteer crew member with Oban lifeboat

Being onboard one of Scotland’s busiest lifeboats is no small commitment but in the
midst of a global pandemic, the new recruits have faced extraordinary challenges.

Oban lifeboat is often in high demand, 2019 saw the volunteer crew launch 83 times – an average of seven call outs a month. Each time, a crew of six, including a duty coxswain and mechanic, are needed. During that year the lifeboat spent 164 hours at sea during call outs, that equates to nearly 1,000 hours or 41 days of voluntary time.

At the end of 2019, the lifeboat had a team of 22 sea-going volunteers along with a full time coxswain and mechanic, but still had a couple of spaces to fill. After an open night, Andy and Gillies were selected and had signed up by January, committing themselves to dropping everything at any time to go to the rescue of others.

Andy, whose day job sees him skippering boats and offering powerboat instruction said having always known the RNLI was there if he needed them, it felt right to offer something in return.

And Gillies, who owns local business Fiuran Property, also felt it was a good way to give something back to the community.

‘I didn’t have a huge amount of maritime experience but I love the water and I’m pretty
active, so I thought maybe I could be of use. At the recruitment evening I met some of the team and had a look around the lifeboat. It was then that I decided it was something I really wanted to be a part of and luckily I got invited back for an interview.’

No experience is necessary to volunteer for the RNLI – only one in 10 crew members join with a maritime background. The training the RNLI provides is world-class, making sure volunteers have all the lifesaving skills they need, including having weekly exercises at the station year round where learning never stops.

Training starts with getting to know the lifeboat and the equipment she carries, to learning rope work and man overboard skills. It’s only when the entire plan has been successfully assessed that they become a fully-fledged lifeboat crew member.

Throughout Covid, lifeboats have stayed in service. Extra PPE and additional
safety measures had to be introduced to keep crews safe and social contact was restricted. Stations were closed except for essential reasons, training was put on hold and fundraising and social events cancelled.

Andy  said: ‘We were both signed up by January 2020, but no sooner had our paperwork come back from the RNLI’s HQ allowing us to train had everything started to grind to a halt.’

Gillies remembered feeling relieved to get his pager and said: ‘Ally and Tom (full-time mechanic) worked hard to organise training on the lifeboat when it was permitted.
So we did have some time afloat before the pandemic took hold and we completed a large portion of our training in a short space of time. The RNLI also has a good online learning resource and lockdown has been a good opportunity to learn the theory side of things too.’

Andy had only had his pager for a few days when he received his first shout.

He said: ‘I remember for a brief moment thinking where is that racket coming from before I realised and headed to the station. It was a boat taking on water, so there was some trepidation as well as excitement for me.’

Gillies’ first shout was to help an injured walker.

Covid restrictions meant RNLI volunteers were among millions forced to adapt in ways they could never have imagined. Lifeboat stations traditionally offer a home-away-from-home for their volunteers; a place to debrief and reflect after a shout and somewhere for the wider station family to gather. This was difficult for everyone, but for trainees it posed additional challenges.

Gillies, who grew up in Oban, said he was fortunate to already know a few of the crew when he joined, but he has not been able to get to know everyone, which makes it ‘especially strange’ knowing he could be on a serious lifesaving mission with any of them at a moment’s notice.

‘Covid has undoubtedly made the whole journey harder, but like anything else, you’ve just got to get on with it. In a way, maybe I’m fortunate not knowing what life as a lifeboat crew member was like pre-Covid. I can’t compare my experience to anything, but I’m definitely looking forward to a time when restrictions ease and I can go for a beer with the crew!’ he said.

Oban Lifeboat’s operations manager Billy Forteith said: ‘The commitment shown by all
our volunteers both ashore and afloat, throughout this pandemic, has been outstanding.

‘The restrictions are hard on everyone but they are necessary to keep everyone safe. Andy and Gillies have shown dedication despite challenges they’ve faced and it clearly illustrates the level of commitment required to be a lifeboat crew member.’

Andy said: ‘It’s been amazing working with a close knit team in often
challenging situations. The support from the crew has been second to none and I’m looking forward to completing my initial training and moving on to expand my roles and knowledge.’

Gillies added: ‘There are many highly experienced volunteers on the crew so it’s great to be learning from them. The RNLI is such a well-respected organisation and as their lifeboat crews are predominantly volunteers, there’s no undue pressure. It has been quite different to how I’d imagined it would be, but that’s almost entirely due to Covid, which has changed everything for everyone.’

To find out more about volunteering for the RNLI or for more information on how to support the lifesaving charity visit


Caption: Oban lifeboat new recruits Gillies Pagan and Andy Lockwood have almost finished their initial training despite facing the challenge of Covid restrictions.