After writing about the state-free funding arrangements the RNLI enjoys, I was surprised to be invited to the charity's headquarters. In a subsequent article, I wistfully hoped to be taken out on a lifeboat. No sooner had he read it than Andrew Freemantle, chief executive of the RNLI, emailed to tell me this was all arranged.
Before climbing aboard, I met lifeboat men and women who were attending a course at the Lifeboat College, the RNLI's training centre in Poole, Dorset. It was fascinating to see ordinary people volunteering for operational duties and putting their lives at risk for other people's mishaps, misjudgements and, sometimes, downright stupidity. I was intrigued: surely altruism alone wouldn't account for their commitment?
In partnership with its volunteers, the RNLI has constructed a fair and transparent covenant that sets out expectations on both sides - and the training standards are high. It's dangerously close to a contract of employment, but isn't one. It appears demanding and rigid, but if you are taking a lifeboat worth £1.5m out to sea and are responsible for the safety of your crew, then some sort of contract is required. It's all very transactional, except that money does not change hands in the same way as it does in other dangerous professions such as firefighting.
So what do the volunteers get out of it? Talking to them, the overriding theme was a sense of community. Many coastal lifeboat stations are supported by close-knit families, all of whom respect the sea. Some were quite hard-bitten, saying "it could be me out there". A few Walter Mittys may also get through, but these are rare. The very real danger these volunteers face is so different from the bulk of mainstream volunteering activities that one wonders how the RNLI has held it together in our increasingly risk-averse society. But it has.
I was welcomed aboard the boat with the visiting Second Sea Lord, who was keen to demonstrate his seafaring skills by taking the helm and pushing the boat up to 27 knots (that's fast, I tell you). I discovered 20 minutes into the two-hour trip that I had acquired yet another disability: sea sickness.