Morecambe RNLI lifeboat hero dies at 81

Keith Willacy pictured in 2009. Picture by Garth Hamer
Keith Willacy pictured in 2009. Picture by Garth Hamer

Morecambe RNLI lifeboat crew’s most decorated volunteer has passed away at the age of 81.

A founder member of Morecambe’s RNLI inshore lifeboat crew, Keith Willacy was the Senior Helmsman for many years before retiring from the crew in 1986.

Keith Willacy. Photo: Morecambe Lifeboat.

Keith Willacy. Photo: Morecambe Lifeboat.

He was later appointed to the role of Honorary Secretary (now known as Lifeboat Operations Manager) for a number of years.

Keith was awarded an RNLI Bronze Medal in 1973 in recognition of his courage, skill and tenacity during the rescue of two men stranded on Clarks Wharf Sandbank, half a mile off Heysham Harbour.

In 1981 Keith received a framed letter of thanks from the RNLI chairman in recognition of the determination and excellent seamanship he displayed during the rescue of two men from an inflatable dinghy near Morecambe golf course.

In 1983 Keith was awarded a Silver Medal in recognition of his courage, determination, leadership and seamanship when the D class lifeboat rescued a man after he had been persuaded to jump into the sea from a concrete marker pillar, onto which he had climbed when he was in difficulties on his sailboard, a quarter of a mile north of Heysham Harbour, in a gale and a rough sea.

In 1990 the ‘Thanks of the Institution’ inscribed on Vellum were accorded to Keith and his fellow crew members, in recognition of their high standard of seamanship and bravery when a Zodiac Mark III inflatable dinghy was launched from the shore and completed a night rescue of the sole occupant of the yacht Phoenix off Glasson Dock, in a north westerly storm and heavy rain.

Morecambe RNLI volunteer Deputy Launching Authority, Colin Midwinter, said: “Keith was the senior helmsman when I joined the crew, as a teenager, during the mid seventies.

“Keith’s wife Jean and my mother worked together in the old telephone exchange. Of many personal memories I have, two come instantly to mind.

“The first is when we were called out to go to the aid of two anglers who were in a dinghy trapped under the Central Pier and in danger of being smashed to pieces.

“The sea was very rough and we were having difficulty launching the lifeboat as the incoming tide kept washing it back onto its trailer.

“The decision was quickly taken to tip the trailer up at the side of the slipway to get the boat into the water.

“We did so and the boat suddenly slid off the trailer; with me still holding on to it. We didn’t have dry suits in those days and I surfaced apparently looking like a drowned rat, soaking wet and freezing cold, to be greeted with Keith’s instruction to ‘stop messing about and get in the boat’.

“The second occurred when he and Jean were invited to attend a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. Keith was determined not to stay in the capital city any longer than necessary and, as I was living and working in London at the time, it was agreed that I would pick them up outside the Palace gates at 5pm and drive them to Euston station in time to catch the 5.25pm train.

“I duly collected them and drove through the rush hour traffic; dropping them off with 10 minutes to spare. Keith had his eyes closed for the entire journey. It was the only time I ever saw him lost for words.””

“A keen local historian, Keith published books on the history of local lifeboats and the fishing industry and his artistic talent can be seen adorning some of the town’s buildings.

“Keith took part in more than 200 rescues during his lifeboat career and he leaves a legacy and an example for others to aspire to.

“Our condolences go out to his son David and the rest of his family.”

Messages of condolence were posted on social media after the news broke.

Liz Midwinter said on Facebook: “I was so sad to hear this. As a St John Cadet I spent a lot of time with Jean, and by extension Keith along with Joe and Jed. He was always a friendly face, a supportive ear, and comedy gold. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace Grandad xx”

Morris Hummel said: “RIP Keith, worked together on fishery protection vessel, he was also a close neighbour, great guy”

Caroline Rieck wrote: “My dad knew him, remember him coming into my dad’s shop, so sad and a brave man, condolences to his family”

And Diane Burrow posted: “Thinking of you all at this sad time. Just reminiscing with Cath McLennan about all our family holidays in Wales!”