AS a boy of five or six, Dave Cocks remembers being given the “big privilege” of polishing the propellers of the Redcar lifeboat, until the coxswain could see his face in the brass.

Today, six decades on, he can reflect on a lifetime spent saving souls out on the steel grey North Sea as one of the region’s longest-serving lifeboat volunteers – just like his father before him.

“There's salt and iron in my blood,” says Dave, whose day job for 32 years was spent at the local steelworks, including the sad duty of overseeing the shutting down the blast furnace in 2010.

Born in Overdene maternity home at nearby Saltburn, Dave has never ventured far from the sea. His dad, Charlie, a Redcar lad, was coxswain of an air-sea rescue boat in wartime, and joined the Redcar lifeboat crew when he was demobbed in 1948. He remained the station’s administration officer until he died, aged 83, in 2006.

Charlie, whose paid jobs included being a River Tees harbour policeman, and South Gare lighthouse watchkeeper, met his wife, Cath, in Claudy Gallone’s café, where the lifeboat crew often went for a cuppa.

Dave, the eldest of their three children, grew up with the lifeboat being part of his life: whether it was doing odd jobs like polishing the propellers, or watching his dad being called out on countless rescues.

In the days long before pagers or bleepers, maroons were fired to alert the lifeboat crews to an emergency. They went off with a bang that could be heard for miles – two bangs for the Redcar lifeboat, three to summon the Teesmouth lifeboat further up the coast.

In the1960s, Charlie heard a bang, followed by second. There was no third bang, so he ran out of the house, oblivious to his wife running downstairs trying to stop him.

“It was a false alarm – the bangs were her throwing a pair of shoes in the wardrobe,” smiles Dave.

One of Redcar’s proudest claims to fame is being home to The Zetland, the world’s oldest surviving lifeboat, which arrived in 1802, and stands as the centrepiece of a museum overlooking the promenade.

It was only a matter of time before Dave became an official part of that rich heritage by enrolling as a crewman in 1978, rising to become Lifeboat Operations Manager in 2014.

“Lifeboat crew members always remember the first life they saved, and I still get goosebumps when I think back to mine,” he says. “It’s like yesterday.”

It was actually the late 1970s and the inshore lifeboat had been called to search for a missing canoeist near Salburn pier.

“People were pointing from the pier to where he’d capsized and when we got to him, he was looking straight through me, up to heaven, recalls Dave. “He’d decided he’d given up, but I decided he hadn’t, and pulled him in.”

With the canoeist barely conscious, the lifeboat was crashed onto the beach near the Ship Inn, where an ambulance was waiting.

“He survived, and it turned out that he was a young teacher,” says Dave. “I often wonder how many children have also benefited from that life being saved.”

But being a lifeboat volunteer is a life of contrasts, and he also remembers the first life lost on his watch. A boy scout had also capsized while canoeing, became hypothermic, and went into cardiac arrest.

“There’s always a solemn mood around the station when things go wrong – no-one speaks,” he explains.

Sadly, there was nothing the lifeboat crew, nor anyone else, could do to help save the life of a 44ft sperm whale washed up on Redcar beach in 2011.

But, mercifully, no lives were lost in the biggest incident during Dave’s time as a lifeboat volunteer. It came in 1993 when the Danish oil tanker, Freja Svea, ran aground off Redcar. Hartlepool lifeboat crew member, Robbie Maidens, was swept overboard but rescued by an RAF Helicopter.

On average, the Redcar lifeboat is called out between 50 and 70 times a year, with the RNLI nationally being involved in nearly 10,000 emergencies in 2019.

“It can be any time of day or night, and you never know what it’s going to be,” says Dave.

Last month, the Redcar lifeboat was called out to a horse swimming out to sea after dumping its rider. Fortunately, it headed back to shore before the crew arrived.

With the pandemic leading to an increase in staycations, 2020 has been the second busiest summer on record with a third of all rescues relating to mental health.

These days, Dave serves as press officer, raising the profile of the Redcar lifeboat, and giving talks on the tireless work of the volunteers who keep us safe on the coast.

And, after 64 years in the shadow of the lifeboat, he has no intention of cutting his ties any time soon.

“It’s part of me and always will be,” he says.

Just like his father before him.

To support the work of Dave and his colleagues, go to www.redcarlifeboat.org.uk

•And to support the Zetland Lifeboat Museum, go to www.zetlandlifeboat.co.uk. Covid-19 allowing, the museum will re-open at Easter, and new volunteers are always needed as well as financial donations.

WHAT a response to my story last week about Ian Barnes, who set the British mile record for over-85s, with me following in his slipstream.

National newspapers, Jeremy Vine's TV show, and regional telly all showcased Ian's achievement.

Indeed, his fame stretched to the other side of the world, with an Australian TV quiz show, called 'Have you been paying attention?' getting in touch to ask him to appear by video link.

But I'm pleased to say it was The Northern Echo that set the pace.

The Northern Echo:

STILL on the subject of record-breaking Ian Barnes, I'm grateful to Kevin Archer for getting in touch.

Kevin, now living in Scarborough, was once Wear Valley District Council's Community Fitness Manager, and a member of Crook and District Athletics Club. His own athletics achievements include breaking the British masters mile record for the 65-69 age group.

Kevin has kindly done some scientific analysis and, not surprisingly, concluded that Ian falls into the 'superior' fitness category for anyone over 60, let alone 85.

However,  my time of 8 minutes 10.98 seconds puts me into the 'fair' category for a 50-59-year-old male. Kevin's email goes on to say: "You are not quite doing your bit to keep as healthy as you could be, and protecting the NHS. You have to clamber out of the 'fair' category, and push through the 'good' and 'excellent' categories – 6 minutes 30 seconds should do it."

Yeah, right!