Article - Perils on the sea

I gather that this past year has witnessed more hurricanes than in any other year in recent times.

Certainly, the stories and pictures of the devastation caused by high winds in the Caribbean and in the United States have been horrifying. They remind us all too forcefully of the fact that we human beings and everything constructed by us are puny by comparison if the forces of nature are unleashed.

Perhaps it is as well to be brought back to the realisation that, for all our sophisticated technology, our civilisations subsist precariously and rather fleetingly on the rim of a mid-sized planet hurtling through space around a mid-sized star, and that the slightest perturbations in these cosmic relationships could at any moment sweep away everything that we have come to regard as lasting or even permanent.

But, salutory as this may be in giving us a sense of what we are and what we are not, it is definitely an uncomfortable set of thoughts on which it doesn't do to dwell for too long.

All of this was very much in my mind when I began some days ago to receive warnings from the Environment Agency and the Met Office about the likelihood of high winds, stormy waters and coastal flooding in West Dorset. Mercifully, at the time of writing - although there are more storms forecast - nothing too horrendous appears to have hit West Dorset. But I am acutely conscious that we have come through this last bout of bad weather essentially unscathed only because of the good work done by the Environment Agency and local councils in maintaining and refurbishing our coastal defences.

These fixed defences are, of course, only part of the story. The other part, equally important, is played by the sterling men and women who guard us from perils on the sea - the Coastguard, Coast Watch and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

I see that the last of these, the RNLI (which depends entirely on its hugely courageous and public-spirited volunteers) is currently in the market for new volunteers locally.

I can't think of anything more worthwhile that anyone could do in the service of society, and I very much hope that - if it does nothing else - this column may attract the attention of somebody who is thereby prompted to apply or to persuade someone else to apply.

A remarkable thing isn't that more volunteers are needed. It is that, even in roles like this, where there is not only great trouble taken and considerable disruption to normal life but also significant danger and personal risk, there is nevertheless a steady flow of people whose ambition to take on exciting, unpaid work on behalf of those in need is sufficiently strong to outweigh all these inconveniences and risks.