I’ve had a connection with the RNLI for many years, ever since my days presenting Blue Peter, and I’m sure many of you will have made donations to this charity that keeps people safe around our shores. The organisation operates thanks to the generosity of the British public and most of the RNLI’s members are volunteers.
So I was looking forward to working with their International Flood Rescue Team on Loch Etive in Argyll and Bute for Countryfile (18 September). The team had rescued more than 200 people during the floods of Cockermouth in 2009. And, although it was only telly and we were just training, the day was going to throw up some challenges that were slightly off their radar.
I flew up from London (arriving as usual on location in the early hours of the morning) having had a warning from the pilot that the weather forecast involved the words ‘torrential’ and ‘rain’. Still, nobody diving head first into the raging torrents of water cascading from the Scottish mountains can have bleary eyes for long.
This was swift water training and even the RNLI were amused by the speed of the flow. We’d had a few problems getting to the chosen spot. The boys had attached ropes in a zigzag from tree to tree so we could scale the decline to the water’s edge. We all made it down safely but the same can’t be said for the director’s monitor. It slipped from her hand and we all watched it tumble down the sludgy slope, picking up pace until it plopped into the foaming white water below. Luckily, I managed to get through the swift water training better than our equipment did, so then it was off to do the next exercises the RNLI had in store.
Walkie talkie on water
Heading off to our new location, we found the main road around the loch was closed due to an accident. Traffic from both directions had the only option of a 15-mile single track detour across the Highlands. In rescue mode once more, the RNLI (still dressed in their drysuits) turned their hands to traffic control.
We eventually arrived, lunchless and with just enough daylight left. For reasons I won’t go into, we ended up without waterproof sound equipment and were standing on the banks of the loch wondering how to record my report from the boat. You may have noticed that while I was on the rib doing high-speed exercises, I was talking on a walkie talkie – my eureka moment of how to solve the problem. I spoke into the RNLI’s waterproof radio so you could hear my voice on the other radio on the bank, which the soundman happily recorded from dry land. Thankfully it turned out ok and you could hear all the action – even though it was tricky holding on with one hand!