For 33-year-old Karen McNally, a childhood spent growing up on the shores of Lough Neagh meant water skiing, banana boating and swimming were part and parcel of daily life and fun.
“My father had a boat, so it felt very natural to us to be out and about around the lough shore,” she recalls. “We all learned to swim when we were three or four. I always wanted to join a group that would somehow help others and be something I would enjoy. My brother Paul was first to join Lough Neagh Rescue and it was through him that I joined the organisation. I’ve been volunteering for them now for nearly 14 years.”
As well as partaking in this demanding role on the sometimes fraught waters of Lough Neagh, Karen is also a busy professional with a young family.
A full time sales executive for Greiner Packaging UK, she is married to Stephen and has two children, eight-year-old Luke and three-year-old Isla.
And 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she has a little pager attached to her person, which signals when there is an emergency on the waters - and answer it she must.
Of course, she responds with enthusiasm; such is her passion for saving lives and helping out in tricky situations that she was recently made training officer for the Ardboe Lifeboat Station (the other three stations based at Lough Neagh are Kinnego Marina, on the edge of Oxford Island, and Antrim) and as such is the first female to hold the title. Naturally, she’s delighted.
“I now need to deliver what is expected of me, and I have very big boots to fill,” she smiles. “The crew have never treated me any differently for being a female so I know they have confidence in me to work as hard as the previous TOs have.”
It’s a remarkable achievement, but before my own brain can even compute what Karen is now expected to do, I’m curious to learn more about what appealed to her about training as a crew member.
“Well, my brother took me down to train about 14 years ago and it just went from there,” she says matter of factly.
“Over the years I’ve trained and studied for my RYA qualifications, which include RYA Powerboat Level 1 and 2, Intermediate and Advanced, First Aid, Sea Survival, etc., and my most recent was my RYA Power boat Instructor course, a qualification I am immensely proud of and excited to have.
“There are very few female Powerboat Instructors in the country, so I am delighted to be one of them and would encourage others to go for it.
“I have always had a big interest in the training of crew and it was one of my goals to be heavily involved in this area. There are so many areas that we cover as crew that people generally would not know. Initially, you learn about the practicality of the lifeboat and the rescues, but we do a lot of theory work through a set of competencies which in turn are also designed to help crew gain their qualifications.
“We also do a lot of fundraising. although we receive yearly donations from our surrounding councils and have had previous help through grant-aiding, the main part of our income is from fundraising by our dedicated volunteers and private donations.”
As a training officer, Karen’s role will still “involve all the same things that is expected from a crew member”, but additionally she will be arranging training for her colleagues on a weekly basis, and help them set and achieve their goals, whether that be their next qualification, a role within the organisation or simply additional training on areas that they are unsure off.
“It is my job to make sure that there is always a progression route,” she said, adding that working with the crews from the other two stations was also an important part of the training process for the Ardboe crew.”
Karen reveals that the Ardboe crew comprises around 25 officers, and there are about 20 in Kinnego and 15 in Antrim.
All the stations will take part in training exercises with local fire and ambulance crews as well as ensure they are up to date with their own basic boatwork training.
She admits, however, that there is an imbalance in the male/female make-up of the crews!
“I have tried on different occasions to bring more women in, the but I think when they see some of the aspects involved, such as the being out late at night, and in freezing weather, a lot of them fade away quite quickly!
“However we get a lot of men in as well who are surprised at the amount of work that we do!”
Putting in the hours isn’t something that frightens Karen.
“I like to be active, and out and about!” she laughs.
“Even when I’m on holiday, my husband is constantly asking why I can’t just sit at peace.”
Needless to say, Karen’s other half has got used to her on occasion having to respond to an emergency call in the middle of the night.
She insists he doesn’t worry too much about her - he knows she, like her crew mates, are well trained and equipped to cope in any situation.
“When we go out on the boat, the first thing we think of is the safety of the crew. We have a coxsman who is a very experienced crew member, and it is down to him or her to ensure that we don’t go in to anything that is going to put our lives in danger.
“But in all the years I have been on the lifeboat I’ve never came across anything we couldn’t cope with.
“We are trained to know what to expect in terms of the weather when we go out there, and our boats are built to such a high specification to cope with the elements.”
But Karen admits that the one part of the job which she found difficult the first time she encountered it was the recovery of someone who had lost their life in the water.
“The first time I experienced it, my own training officer was fantastic in supporting me and pulling me aside to make sure I was OK,” she recalls.
“You just don’t know how you might cope with that. Thankfully I am quite good in this scenario, I think I just go into auto pilot and deal with it. With being a training officer now, you have to fit in a kind of counselling role as well, just to make sure everybody is OK, as the one thing we don’t want is to put any stress on our crew members.”
I ask Karen if there are any rescue operations that are particularly memorable for her. and she refers to one that started out as a routine training exercise.
“We came across canoeists on shore who seemed quite distressed. We made our way on shore to check that all was well, when we discovered that one of them was suffering with hypothermia and not responding. Our crew were quick to act on getting the medical attention that was required, and it was one of those moments when we knew we were in the right place at the right time and proud that the casualty on that night was saved!”