The Art of Service Boards

Each year, just before Hoylake & West Kirby Lifeboat Open Day, local sign-writer Rodger Passmore is tasked with an important job. For over 40 years, Rodger has diligently and painstakingly recorded every service to which the Hoylake Lifeboat has been called out on the lifeboat station's service boards, having been first commissioned by Coxswain Danny Triggs.

The distinctive black wooden boards adorn the walls of lifeboat stations all around the UK and Irish coast and represent decades, or in Hoylake's case centuries, of heroism, peril and in some cases tragedy. The Hoylake boathouse also houses the service boards for the former Hilbre Island lifeboat station, which closed in 1938.

Today, Hoylake's service boards are manufactured by local boat-builder and former lifeboat Second Coxswain/ Mechanic Alan Tolley. Using traditional methods, Rodger then paints the entries onto each service board by hand. He began his training as a sign-writer in 1956 after a stint in the Royal Air Force. Having learned his craft in an era where sign-writers were in high demand, Rodger enjoyed a long and successful career. Now in his retirement, he continues to write signs for his friends and favourite charities from his home studio in West Kirby.

It takes a great deal of planning and skill to ensure that his work represents the past year's lifeboat call-outs accurately, sensitively and clearly, so that visitors to the lifeboat station can see the lifesaving work that the volunteer crews have carried out.

Due to the ease and relatively low cost of digital printing, few lifeboat stations continue to keep their service boards updated through traditional sign-writing. It is a delicate and time-consuming task to complete a service board by hand, especially when the lifeboat has had a busy year. However, the volunteer crew at Hoylake Lifeboat Station are incredibly grateful to Rodger for enabling them to carry on one of the RNLI's great traditions of cataloguing each shout in this way for future generations.

The entries on Hoylake's service boards are based on the brief details kept in the logbook of the station's Head Launcher, as has been the case since the nineteenth century. In just a few short words, each entry can represent some of the most dramatic moments in the lives of both a lifeboat crew member and the casualties they rescue.

To take just one example from Hoylake's long history, on 20th September 1979 the relief Oakley class lifeboat The Will and Fanny Kirby, serving as Hoylake Lifeboat, launched in exceptionally heavy seas and storm force winds to the 40ft catamaran Truganini, which was in difficulty in the River Dee. The waves were 10ft high at the launch site, lifting both the lifeboat and its carriage off the sea bed at times before she was able to get underway. Under the command of Coxswain Harry Jones, the lifeboat crew located the 40ft vessel anchored at the southern end of the West Hoyle Bank and being swept by huge waves.

With tremendous seamanship, Coxswain Jones manoeuvred the lifeboat alongside the casualty, where it was found that there were three persons on board. Second Coxswain John McDermott and crew member David Dodd both safely jumped aboard the catamaran and found the crew exhausted. Were the catamaran's anchor line to part in such dangerous conditions, the consequences would likely have been fatal.

Jones decided to tow the vessel to Mostyn Docks and McDermott and Dodd secured the towline on the Truganini's deck, where they were both in danger of being swept overboard. Eventually the tow got underway despite the mountainous seas and the catamaran was eventually berthed safely at Mostyn, before the lifeboat collected McDermott and Dodd to make the 12-mile return journey to Hoylake beach. This relatively short passage took two hours in the heavy seas.

Hoylake Lifeboat, The Will and Fanny Kirby, tows the Catamaran Truganini into Mostyn Docks

For their superb courage and skill in completing this outstanding rescue, the RNLI's bronze medal was awarded to Coxswain Harry Jones and the RNLI's Thanks on Vellum were awarded to John McDermott and David Dodd (who both later served as Coxswain). Medal Service Certificates were also presented to crew members Geoff Ormrod (also later Coxswain), Peter Jones, Alan Tolley and Gordon Bird and Framed Letters of Thanks were presented to tractor drivers Jeff Kernighan and Stan Bird.

This rescue evokes strong memories among the crew who served on The Will and Fanny Kirby that day. It remains one of the most dramatic episodes in Hoylake Lifeboat Station's history. The station's service board for 1979 was later updated to record this rescue. The entry for 20th September sits among a list of other shouts to which the Hoylake Lifeboat launched that year. The entry is brief, but no less poignant:

"Catamaran TRUANINI of Mostyn. Saved boat and 3"

Hoylake's service boards are on display on the walls of the lifeboat station for all of our volunteers and visitors to see. It is worth pausing, looking up at the boards and admiring both Rodger's fine craftsmanship and the years of courage that his hand-painted words represent.

 (Photo credit: Victoria Phipps)