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Features / Lifeboat lass wonders what the fuss is about

Elle Leslie - volunteering for the lifeboat 'not a big deal' - Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews

ELLE Leslie has an appetite for adventure. The 27 year old social care worker has braved shark cage diving in South Africa, ridden an elephant during a solo voyage to Sri Lanka and most recently, become Lerwick lifeboat’s first ever female volunteer.

Despite her daredevil exploits, Edinburgh-raised Elle comes across as a genuinely unassuming person who is somewhat bemused by the attention she has received as a result of her new role.

She admits that she has never thought of volunteering for the lifeboat as “a big deal”.

“I just went along to see what it’d be like,” she says.

Her fellow crew members are, she claims, equally unfazed by her presence.

“The Aith lifeboat has female crew members and so do lifeboats on the mainland so it’s not such a new thing really.”

Elle’s passion for water sports makes her decision to join the lifeboat crew seem perfectly natural. She developed a love of boats and the sea as a child, when her uncle would take her sailing. Years later she honed her first aid and rescue skills as a lifeguard in an Edinburgh health club.

While studying nursing in Edinburgh, Elle joined Napier University’s kayaking club and was introduced to the Wet West Paddle Fest (a major kayaking event attended by kayaking enthusiasts from around the UK).

Elle clearly relished what sounds like a rather hair raising experience. “The water people release the dams so that the rivers fill up very quickly and then we just all go for it.”

The Wet West Paddle Fest sounds demanding, but it is relatively gentle compared to kayaking polo, which Elle has also played (both for Napier University kayaking group and for Orkney).

She admits to having had “quite a few good bruises” as the paddles have “got a habit of whacking you in the face – you get flipped over quite a lot”.

All these experiences combined to stand Elle in good stead for her first lifeboat call out, but it sounds as if her first “shout” was challenging even so.

It was a case of “going in at the deep end” as her first summons for duty came on a cold and dark evening in December.

“I’d been working from half one till nine and I was just finishing my shift when my pager went off. I had to go straight to the station from work and get changed.

“I did get an adrenalin rush because it was my first ‘shout’ and I didn’t know what to expect.

“We were told it was for a tow – a boat a mile or so south of Sumburgh had lost power. We got talked through what we were going to have to do on the way there. At least it wasn’t too choppy – about four metre swells.”

Being out on the sea on a winter’s night does not sound like an attractive prospect to my ears. I ask Elle how she had managed to deal with the cold.

“It wasn’t so bad when we were getting set up because we were constantly moving. On the way back up we had the boat attached and we couldn’t go too fast because of the current.

“When we got back we had to stop outside the Knab to take the tow rope off and pull it back in. It was the back of three in the morning and the rain had just started.

“None of us had slept and we were all really tired so we were just standing shivering. At least our yellow oilskins keep the cold off a bit.”

Elle has since been called out on two more occasions. Neither have been as chilly as the one in December, but high winds at the beginning of the year rendered a January “shout” to Collafirth a less than smooth experience.

All of this makes it clear that volunteering to be a lifeboat volunteer is not for the faint hearted. So what skills and qualities do volunteers need to possess?

“You need to be committed. Each volunteer has to attend two shouts and 12 training sessions in a year (on the day of our interview Elle was, in fact, getting ready for a week long training session in Poole).

“You need to be able to deal with things you might see on a ‘shout’ and of course, you need to be able to work well with other people.”

I ask Elle what advice she would give anyone considering volunteering for the Lerwick Lifeboat.

“Turn up for a training session. Not just one, you need to do a couple. Try yourself on a calm day and then try a choppy day to see if you can cope with it.”

Lerwick lifeboat has now welcomed a second female on board. Jackie Murray joined the volunteers earlier this year. Anyone interested in becoming a lifeboat volunteer (regardless of gender) should contact operations manager Malcolm Craigie on 07979 366 686.

Genevieve White