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Kinghorn lifeboat family on their life-saving roles as RNLI celebrates 200th anniversary

As the RNLI celebrates its 200th anniversary, we meet Liz Davidson and her fellow family members crewing the Kinghorn lifeboat.

‘RNLI Lifeboat family’ Megan Davidson (centre), holding daughter Ella, with mother Liz Davidson, right, and Megan’s partner Paul, left, and Paul’s son Harris at RNLI Kinghorn.
‘RNLI Lifeboat family’ Megan Davidson (centre), holding daughter Ella, with mother Liz Davidson, right, and Megan’s partner Paul, left, and Paul’s son Harris at RNLI Kinghorn. Image: Andrew Cawley

They are the courageous volunteer force that braves mountainous waves and howling gales to save lives at sea.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Since its inception in 1824, the RNLI in the UK and Ireland has saved 144,452 lives and helped 296,518 people.

In Scotland alone the RNLI has saved 11,878 souls and helped 33,774 others to safety.

The charity has organised a special thanksgiving ceremony in London’s Westminster Abbey. One member of each of the country’s lifeboat stations will attend.

Kinghorn lifeboat operations manager Liz Davidson will be among them. With two members of her family, she is part of a 34-strong team that covers an area of more than 100 square miles.

This is their story…

The Mother

It’s 3am, pitch dark and a storm is raging. From the window of her cliff-top home overlooking the Firth of Forth, RNLI lifesaver Liz Davidson is scanning the horizon. But she is not on duty.

She is waiting for the safe return of the Atlantic 85 lifeboat. Her teenage daughter is part of its brave crew.

Mum of two Liz – whose daughter Megan, now 32, three months ago made her a grandmother – has been saving lives at sea for 27 years. She was initially with the Coastguard before being invited to join the RNLI.

Last January she became the Kinghorn Lifeboat Station’s operations manager, the second woman to take on the responsibility for co-ordinating rescues with the aim of ensuring all involved are returned safely to shore.

Liz Davidson.
Liz Davidson. Image: Andrew Cawley

Liz was part of the team called to help a Loganair mail plane that went down in foul weather after taking off from Edinburgh Airport in February 2001. Tragically, both on board were killed.

She remembered: “It was a tragic, sad shout. The conditions were horrendous. The plane ditched in the south side of the river. As the tide changed it went down further. In the end, divers recovered the bodies.”

Despite the conditions, Liz has never once feared for her own safety. She has 51 launches under her belt, saving three lives and rescuing 28 others.

“As crew I had great faith and huge confidence in the boat, the equipment, and my colleagues,” she said.

“I never had a second thought when that pager went off. And I still have huge confidence, but there is something extra when it is not you who is going, when you are the one sending others out on rescues.”

The grandma is also mum to psychology masters student Kristi, 29.

She admitted: “Megan going to sea at 17 is a very different feel. If I am not on duty I watch at the window when the weather is rough for her and the crew coming back. As a mum, you can’t get away from that. I am probably tougher on her than the rest of the crew.”

The Daughter

Megan Davidson was a sixth-year student at Balwearie High School in Kirkcaldy when she followed in her mum’s footsteps and joined the RNLI. She completed training and her first “shout” came just a few weeks later.

Now, 32, she juggles her role as a trainee helm – the lead and most important role on the lifeboat – with her profession as an advocate and motherhood.

Three months ago, she and crewmate Paul Stather, 36, welcomed their baby daughter Ella Elizabeth into the world. Ella is a little sister to Paul’s nine-year-old son from a previous relationship and keen lifeboat supporter Harris.

Megan Davidson, holding baby daughter Ella.
Megan Davidson, holding baby daughter Ella. Image: Andrew Cawley

She remembered: “I was off school when the pager went off. We went out to a fishing boat that had lost power off Port Seton and then got another call that another fishing boat had pulled up a Second World War mine in their nets.

“I was thinking, ‘that’s a bomb – what are we supposed to do about a bomb?’.”

The crew took co-ordinates for the mine’s location to relay via the Coastguard to the Royal Navy. Then they organised a tow for the stricken boat, while a naval team dealt with the explosive.

Megan has been involved in 148 launches, in which she saved eight lives and helped 69 others.

She said: “I was nervous but, thankfully, that day the weather was calm, and we had a great helm who kept me right.”

Before becoming a couple, she and Paul had carried out a number of rescues together, including the retrieval of two dinghy sailors who had capsized because of equipment failure in a two-metre swell and were unable to right their boat. Both lives were saved.

In October 2020 they were featured in the BBC Two series Saving Lives At Sea.

The Kinghorn lifeboat was called out to rescue a paddleboarder and kayaker who had got into difficulty off Portobello beach.

Megan said: “The kayaker had gone out to the woman on the paddle board, but he had a stroke in the process of trying to help her. He lost control of one side of his body and ended up in the water.”

The double rescue on BBC Two series Saving Lives at Sea.
The double rescue on BBC Two series Saving Lives at Sea. Image: BBC

Megan quickly realised he was suffering from more than cold water shock. She quickly got him ashore and to an ambulance. “He made an almost full recovery,” she said. Rescuers returned the paddleboarder safe and well too.

“It was a good feeling to know we had really made a difference, particularly
for the man. We were in the right place at the right time. It could have been devastating for him and his family if we hadn’t been there.”

Toughest for her are the call-outs to people suffering from mental health issues. She estimates that amounts to a third of all calls.

“It might be someone attempting to harm themselves or who have succeeded in ending their life. I find those the hardest.”

Despite the RNLI crews’ best efforts, tragedies do occur, but she says the organisation offers all support necessary for its volunteers to cope with the aftermath.

“The only thing that keeps us going in the event of a death is being able to return a loved one to their family so that they have a body to grieve and lay to rest.”

Baby Ella, with RNLI wooly hat.
Baby Ella, with RNLI wooly hat. Image: Andrew Cawley

And what about her own “loved ones”?

Megan is currently a shore-based “launch authority” until her daughter reaches the age of six months.

“It can be quite difficult. Paul was out in rough weather over Christmas. I was at my mum’s house looking out of the window and could see the boat getting a battering as it tried to come to shore. That’s a horrible feeling.”

Has motherhood made her reconsider the risks she faces? The answer is emphatic: “No because I have trust in the skill of the crew and the equipment we have.”

And what if baby Ella decides to join the RNLI when she grows up? Megan smiles:
“I will be right behind her!”

The Partner

Proud partner and devoted dad-of-two Paul Stather from Islay was a member of its RNLI crew before joining the team on the Kinghorn lifeboat.

He has been involved in 231 rescues, saved seven lives, and helped a further 136 people in peril at sea.

Since becoming a couple, Paul and Megan rarely carry out rescues together. Paul admitted: “Megan is strong, knows what she is doing and can look after
herself, but it doesn’t stop me from worrying.

“And if we are on the boat together, we remain professional. Job satisfaction on the lifeboat is 100%. Knowing you have saved someone’s life is one of the best feelings you can have.

“What our predecessors did 200 years ago is incredible. Comparing then to
now is like night and day, but what we all have in common through the ages is motivation. We do it because we love it.”

The book

A new book commemorates the remarkable 200-year history of the RNLI.

HarperNonFiction is publishing To Save Every One with a foreword by 007 – James Bond actor Daniel Craig.