MAXINE GORDON joins the York Rescue Boat team for a Saturday night shift

FIREWORKS erupt from Clifford's Tower and light up the night sky as I cross Skeldergate Bridge. The river looks inky black and eerily empty, bar for a tiny light moving slowly downstream. The white dot resembles a torch light from a distance but, as I focus on it, I can just make out the shape of a dinghy. It's almost 7.30 on a Saturday night and the York Rescue Boat (YRB) is on its first patrol of the evening.

I take a right turn to Skeldergate and head down on to Queen's Staith to hook up with Rachel Lacy, operations manager at York Rescue Boat. She is standing by a YRB white van on the quayside outside the Queen's Hotel, eyes firmly glued to the goings-on at the other side of the Ouse. It is unseasonably mild for the time of year and there are punters enjoying a drink outside the King's Arms pub directly opposite.

I am joining her and four more rescue boat volunteers for the night.

York Rescue Boat is an independent lifeboat service and was set up in 2014 to try to reduce the number of river deaths in York. Today, it has 30 volunteers and operates indepedent of but in support to the emergency services. Its teams patrol York's main waterway at weekends, race days and bank holidays, with its volunteers on call 24-7.

Matthew Sellers has been in the organisation since the beginning. Tonight, he is at the helm of the patrol boat – a four-man inflatable called Jorvik Guardian. Like many of the volunteers, he has been trained in flood rescue as well, and can be deployed anywhere in the country. Besides helping out during the Boxing Day deluge of 2015 in York, Matthew was among a York team that performed some 80 rescues during the Cumbrian floods that same winter.

He works shifts in the control room for North Yorkshire Police – so fits in his lifeboat duties around them. He says he has a very understanding wife. "One time I had to leave her in the middle of the supermarket shop to attend an emergency," he says.

Tonight, the team is a bit lighter because several members are away in Cardiff for flood-rescue training in white water. Ordinarily, Rachel would be joined by another handful of volunteers on foot patrol. This involves going up and down the river paths, quays and walkways to make sure no one is at risk of entering the water.

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On patrol: Matthew Sellers at the helm of a YRB inflatable

But the best way to check for this is from the river itself. For the second patrol of the night, I join Matthew and the team. The first challenge is entering the boat, which we do via a long ladder which descends from the edge of the quay into the inflatable. Fellow crew member Edward Matthews holds the ladder firmly in place as I gingerly lower myself down.

Matthew has fitted me with a light life jacket which I'm told will inflate immediately should I end up in the water – and turn me on to my back (the safest position to be in when in water). I perch on the rounded edge of the dinghy and grip tightly to the steel frame of Matthew's chair as we pull away from the quayside

I suddenly feel so much colder. "It's a couple of degrees lower down here," says Matthew, directing the boat towards Ouse Bridge.

What about the water temperature?

"It's about six or seven degrees. That can kill you; it can cause drowning really, really quickly," says Matthew. "You would be risking a potential heart attack or cardiac arrest. You also risk swim failure when you jump into cold water. Your feet and hands go numb as your body takes blood from the extremities to protect your organs. Your arms and legs go heavy and you can't swim any more."

In that event, pipes in Ed, the safest thing to do is to float on your back and make a starfish shape. "You're less likely to sink if you can do that," he says.

Even in summer, Matthew adds, the river can be lethal. "It doesn't get above 12 or 15 degrees," That, he says, is still cold.

As for jumping in – you never know what hazards lie beneath. "The river could be shallow or full of stolen bikes and scaffolding poles. You could even get stuck in the sand or mud," warns Matthew.

These are the messages the team deliver regularly at the many outreach educational events they attend in York. "After one session at Askham Bryan College a young lad came up to said: 'thank you, I am never going to go near the river'," says Matthew. The organisation's motto, says Matthew, is "education, prevention, rescue".

He adds: "Everyone we are teaching we we are hopefully preventing a potential death."

Closer to the bridge, we see a young man sitting on the edge of the parapet. He is smoking and chatting to some friends. They see us approaching and acknowledge a hand signal to get down. He promptly does so and gives us a "thumbs-up".

We carry up towards Scarborough Bridge and can see up close the replacement works that are on-going. Matthew scans the area with a torch, as he has done all the way up, checking no one is lurking in any of the slipways or beach areas close to the water's edge. All is clear and we turn round. As we approach Lendal Bridge, a man from the walkway above leading to Yates's bar beckons us. "Can you reach it?" he shouts, pointing directly below to an inaccessible ledge where a woman has dropped her driver's licence. We can just make out the small rectangle nestling among the weeds. Deftly, Matthew manoeuvres the boat towards the ledge and Ed grabs the card. Moments later, Matthew is pulling up outside the King's Arms and handing over the stray ID. Back on land, he receives a thank you message from the card's owner via the boat's Facebook page. He replies with details of how she can make a donation as way of gratitude.

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Look out: Rachel Lacy, operations manager at York Rescue Boat

Back on land, the crew warm themselves up with a brew from the Queen's Hotel (which kindly lets them use its loos and provides them with free hot drinks while on shift). Rachel is scanning the opposite bank with binoculars and spots a lone figure sitting near the water's edge.

"It looks like a girl, by herself," she says. "She doesn't appear to be on her phone, or having a cigarette, or a drink." That, she says, always rings alarm bells.

Matthew decides to have a closer look. We watch as he climbs into the boat again and cruises towards the King's Arms. He's back minutes later.

"False alarm," he says. "It's a bloke, and he is on his phone."

However, everyone keeps a lookout until the man eventually gets up and walks away, heading up King Street, into town.

Last year, the rescue boat attended 96 incidents and rescued 14 people from the water. Contrary to what much of the public think, says Rachel, very few of the incidents are related to drunk young people falling into the river. Some 85 per cent of all cases last year involved people with mental health issues. Only two per cent of last year's incidents involved rescuing people who had fallen in drunk or who entered the river for fun or as a dare. Other incidents, she adds, involved rescuing birds in distress and helping boat owners in trouble.

Rachel says all volunteers are trained in mental health awareness as well as water and river safety.

Helping people is the main motivation for getting involved, all the volunteers tell me.

Matthew adds: "There are people out there who would not be here today if it wasn't for the team."

Get involved

IT costs £21,000 just to keep the York Rescue Boat going for one year – but the team also needs to fundraise to upgrade its equipment. A new boat will cost £40,000.

A big fundraising push will take place on March 22 and 23 as part of Go Orange Day – where they will be asking people to wear orange and host events such as bake sales.

There will be a charity collection at Sainsbury's at Foss Bank on March 23 and the Carol Saunders Swim School will be supporting the effort as well.

Matthew Sellers, of York Rescue Boat, said: "Lots of different businesses and schools are doing something, from collections and bake sales to non-uniform days."

He said that while volunteer positions for new crew and patrol members were not open at the moment, the team was actively recruiting for fundraisers to help boost the coffers, come up with new ideas and help out at events.

They would also like to recruit a chaplain, he added.

To find out more about volunteering, email:

To find out more about the work of the team, or make a donation, visit: