Hunstanton Flyer is celebrating 20 years of saving lives at sea

Hunstanton Flyer is celebrating 20 years of saving lives at sea

The hovercraft officially came on service with the town's volunteer RNLI crew on 25 July, 2003. She carries a crew of four and can transport up to six rescuees.

Since then, she has been launched 248 times, saved 13 lives and assisted a further 150 people who found themselves in difficulty or in danger.

The station, on Sea Lane, is the only one in Norfolk to operate a hovercraft and one of just four around the UK coastline with similar craft. 

The fast, agile assets can travel across both shallow water and areas of sand and mudflats inaccessible to conventional boats, making them ideal for operating in a tidal estuary such as The Wash.

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Among Hunstanton Flyer's current crew are (from left) Joel Wright, Charlie Parfitt, Leesa Espley and Andrew Craven

Longer-serving volunteers at the station still remember the excitement of being selected to trial the revolutionary new vessel.

‘It was brilliant,’ said Vic Dade, now 62, who became one of the station’s first pilots and hovercraft commanders.

‘We had a full week of trials and we went everywhere, we went all over The Wash on it.

‘It was a bit different to being on the boat until you got used to it but you could go up on the sandbars on it, you could get into King’s Lynn when the tide was out.

‘I was a pilot and commander, one of the first. I took to it quite easy. I went down to Poole to train for a week and the next thing we were operational.’

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Lee Torrice, 52, now the station’s Senior Hovercraft Commander, was also among the first to crew the vessel and another of the station’s first pilots.

‘It is different to fly, you’re at the mercy of the wind and the contours of the land,' he said.

'It’s a bit like driving your car on ice with all four wheels spinning.

'But we soon got the hang of it and once we did get the hang of it, there was nothing we couldn’t do on it. We were away.'

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Her powerful fan generates a cushion of air which enables her to fly across shallow water and surfaces such as mud or soft sand which cannot support land vehicles.

Rigil Kent, 48, now the station’s Lifeboat Operations Manager, was another of its first hovercraft pilots.

‘It’s very strange when you first fly it,’ he said. ‘On a boat, you’ve normally got to stay away from the sandbanks.

‘On the hovercraft, you just go straight over them. It’s proved its worth without a doubt.’

Leesa Espley, 52, joined the Hunstanton crew a few months after Hunstanton Flyer arrived at the station.

She soon went on to become the RNLI’s first female hovercraft pilot.

‘I just wanted to join the crew to start with,’ she said. ‘Then the opportunity came to train on the hovercraft.

‘It was brilliant, it’s totally different to the boat. You haven’t got brakes and you’re governed by the weather a lot. But it can go to places where the boat can’t.’

Geoff Needham, 90, was one of the station’s deputy launch authorities when the hovercraft arrived.

He was on board its first ‘shout’ while it was still on trial, when it diverted from training to assist a grounded narrowboat in The Wash.

‘It goes to about 50pc of our shouts,’ he said. ‘Most of our shouts are to people cut off by the tide on the banks or the Wreck Sands.

‘It’s a valuable piece of kit, it’s got an excellent record.’

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All images Chris Bishop/Hunstanton RNLI

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