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British volunteer rescuers head for the sea

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When Ned Dillon's pager beeps in the middle of a construction job in Arklow, Ireland, it's a signal for him to drop his tools and head for the sea.

Mr. Dillon is one of the more than 4,000 men and 200 women volunteers with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) who are on call to rescue those in peril off the coasts of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The 223 RNLI stations dotted across Britain, aid commercial ships, pleasure craft, and swimmers in trouble. Crews have even delivered babies at sea. Occasionally, they venture inland to help people caught in flooding.

Last year these volunteers answered an average of 18 distress calls per week, assisting a total of 6,782 people in peril.

Dillon leans back on the rail of the sunlit deck of a 52-foot lifeboat as he recalls a recent rescue attempt.

"We got the call at about half-past two in the morning. A fishing boat had gone ashore on rocks about three miles out of our port of Arklow.

"There were gale-force winds, driving rain, and visibility was virtually zero. And then there was a large breaking sea running over the boat. The lifeboat was in danger of being thrown against the vessel that was on the rocks or hitting the rocks itself. It took four attempts to get the five-man crew off.

"Unfortunately, their boat was lost, but we got the men ashore safe and sound. Boats can be replaced but the men can't."

Recently, the RNLI celebrated its 175th birthday. The crowds thronging the quayside on several locations witnessed a massive parade by a flotilla of lifeboats from more than 50 countries, along with a spectacular air show by the Royal Air Force's Red Arrows stunt team.

All have come to pay tribute to the grandfather of all lifeboat organizations, which has saved more than 132,000 lives since its inception.

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