The Finest Hours is a tale of all-American bravery – but don’t forget the heroes closer to home

Watching Disney's true story of a US Coastguard rescue, it's easy to forget the people keeping us safe round the shores of Britain says James Gill

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Sea spray and spitting rain drench the lens. The camera pitches and rolls as waves wash over a little motorboat, while Bernie (aka actor Chris Pine) bellows instructions through a howling gale.

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This is The Finest Hours, Disney’s true-life tale of a crew of US Coastguards who, in 1952, attempted to rescue the crew of a tanker that had been shorn in half just off the coast of Cape Cod.

It’s an all-American tale of derring-do; a disaster movie that swells to a heroic conclusion.

But, and here’s the important bit: you don’t have to go as far as the US coast to find this kind of bravery. Because there are people patrolling the UK coast every day, sometimes in conditions just as challenging. And, unlike the Americans, they don’t get paid to do it.

A chilly swimming pool in Poole might not seem the most gruelling of conditions, but this is where it begins. This is where trainee lifeboat crews for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) come to get their feet wet, as it were, to prepare themselves for real emergencies out at sea.

And now so am I.

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Slugging on the heavy yellow jacket (the smallest size the RNLI stock) and zipping baggy salopettes up to my nipples, I don’t exactly feel like a life saver. Then again, according to training manager Glen Mallen, I’m not the only one who comes here feeling like a fish out of water.

“I had a course once where we were going round the room welcoming everybody, and I asked what they did. ‘Rocket scientist,’ they replied. I said, ‘Come on!’. But they were,” he says. “The next person along, no word of a lie, was a brain surgeon. That’s how diverse this organisation is.”

He sounds like an FA Cup commentator, listing off the butchers, builders, mechanics and doctors that make up his crews.

“At our lifeboat station, I could build a house, repair a car and plaster a wall from all the different people and trades within the crew,” he laughs.

At least part-time footballers know when their next match is coming; lifeboat volunteers never know when the next rescue will be. Crew members carry a pager, and when they get the call, they drop whatever they’re doing, head to the station, suit up and launch. All in less than ten minutes.

It takes me at least ten minutes just to pull the kit on. The boots are the hardest, stiff, galumphing things that suck against your sodden socks.

Finally the life jacket, designed to self-inflate when you hit water. It buckles round your bottom like a harness, so that when it does fill with air it doesn’t just bob to the surface while you slip out and plunge to the bottom of the sea. Best give the straps an extra tug.

Glenn, who’s been doing this for 20 years now, watches with amusement. “I was training to be a building surveyor,” he says. “A friend of mine was on the lifeboat crew, and just as I started my training, I was in the car with him when his pager went off. I didn’t know anything about the RNLI, but we ran to the station, and he went off on the boat and I had to sit there drinking a cup of tea, thinking, ‘That looks fun.’

“The second occasion it happened, they said, ‘You don’t drink tea here for free!’ I had to clean the boat and after that they asked me to join. Three hours after I got my paperwork done I was on my first shout.”

We’re standing on the high platform, 4m above the 4m deep pool, and it’s time to get wet. We have to jump in, swim to the bobbing orange life raft, and scrabble in. No bother.

The trick is to look straight ahead. Look down as you’re jumping and the rest of your body will follow. If you’re lucky you’ll belly flop; if you’re unlucky you’ll do a Tom Daley, dive head-first and be all ends up when the jacket inflates.

I hold my nose and cover my mouth with one hand, while hugging my chest with the other. I look up… and step off.

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Down. Just long enough to wonder whether your body’s in the right position. Just long enough to wonder when to take your last breath. Then those big wellies break the surface and you’re underwater, waiting, hoping that the jacket will inflate. A pop, a slow bubble, then a rush of air as the canisters fire, flopping you on to your back and discharging you on to the surface. Safe.

The water has already gathered in my boots, rushed up my chest through the sleeves and neck of the jacket. It’s now slushing around my body like water in an ice cube tray before freezing. I tuck my body tight, trying to warm the water against my skin.

There’s a rope ladder hanging down into the water from the inflated sides of the raft, but it’s hard to find the steps with your kicking feet. I feel like a kid again, searching for the rung of my bunk bed in the dark.

Arms haul me up, and suddenly I’m in, squeezing through the sickly orange tent flap into a space designed for six but able to accommodate 12 in an emergency. There are just four of us in here, and it already feels cosy.

In the film The Finest Hours, rescuer Bernie somehow keeps his perfectly combed side parting through wind, rain, wave and storm. I look more like a bedraggled squirrel.  

Now for the Training Centre’s secret party trick. The shutters come down on the windows, the lights go out, the wave machine makes the pool waters rise in diamond peaks and flop against the raft. Strobes and thunder effects add to the artificial rain, and beneath the shelter of the raft the experience comes alive. We could be anywhere, hugging our legs in the English Channel or praying for rescue in the North Atlantic.

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But still, it’s nothing compared to the real thing: “One search we did in a Force 10 gale for people who fell off a ferry coming into Poole,” Glenn recalls. “Three people fell over the side of the ferry ‘intentionally’ – I’m careful how I explain that – and somebody saw them go. We were tasked to go out and find them. Those were really challenging conditions, waves that were knocking the boat down. Our lifeboat was right over.

“The other side of the job is when I’ve gone out and resuscitated somebody and got them back. There is nothing better than that type of experience. The minute you know that, hand on heart, you can say you saved that person’s life. I can think of probably fewer than ten times in the thousands of jobs that I’ve done where it’s happened, but had I not had my hand on them at that moment, they wouldn’t be here today.”

It’s easy to get lost in the big screen adventure of something like The Finest Hours, but really, it’s the stories like this that hit closer to home. Think of Margate, not Massachusetts; Cape Wrath, not Cape Cod; Holyhead, not Hollywood.

“I couldn’t not do this job now,” says Glen of the RNLI. “It’s entrenched in me; my values are so closely linked to this cause. You save one person’s life, and it’s quite addictive. You want to do it again.”

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The Finest Hours is out in UK cinemas now, including in IMAX 3D. To find out how to donate to – and volunteer for – the RNLI, go to their website.