Troon’s Citizen of the Year Speaks to AM

by Gill Sherry

It seems fitting that on the day I visit Troon Lifeboat Station, the sea is particularly choppy. I’m sure there’s a more accurate or official description for the day’s wild weather conditions based on the speed and direction of the wind, but ‘choppy’ just about sums it up. One thing’s for sure, I’m glad I’m on solid ground.

I’m here to meet Joe Millar, RNLI coxswain and, as of March this year, Troon’s Citizen of the Year.

“My mother, Janette Millar, won it in 2010 for her work with youth clubs,” Joe tells me, “and our previous coxswain, Ian Johnson, also won it a number of years ago.”

But while Joe may have been familiar with the award, he certainly didn’t expect to win it.

“I got a phone call from Frances Carson, chair of Troon Community Council, to say that I’d been nominated and would I accept the award. It was totally out of the blue.”

Joe had been nominated by his colleagues at the station. I had met two of them when I arrived: Jim Redmond (volunteer lifeboat operations manager) and Evan Gallacher (full-time station mechanic).

“I said yes,” continues Joe. “I went to the Community Council meeting and was presented with the award. I was very honoured to be awarded it, but I said at the time, I’m not only picking this up for myself but on behalf of the rest of the RNLI crew members here at Troon, and the fundraising team. It’s a team effort.”

Joe joined the RNLI as a volunteer 32 years ago. In 2001 he became the full-time mechanic at Troon and a year later took over as full-time coxswain. It’s been a challenging career but also a very satisfying one.

“You’re helping people, you know, when they’ve had a bad day. It’s rewarding because you’re obviously making a difference. I thoroughly enjoy the teamwork, the camaraderie with the crew.”

There are currently 24 volunteers operating from Troon Lifeboat Station, plus Joe and Evan who are full-time.

“We have crew members from all different walks of life,” says Joe. “Everybody’s bringing something different to the table. We have firefighters, police officers, air traffic controllers. When the pagers go off they change from their day job to lifeboat mode.”

All crew must live or work within the town. It can take just eight minutes from the pagers going off, to launching the lifeboat. I imagine the launch time would have been somewhat slower when Troon Lifeboat Station first opened in 1871.

“We celebrated our 150-year anniversary last year,” says Joe. “It was a year late because of Covid. The Lifeboat Enthusiasts… they have an old rowing lifeboat that was very, very close to the exact first lifeboat that we had… and we did a complete lifeboat re-enactment of a launch going back to 1871.”

It was very much a community event which coincided with the station’s open day. Some people were even lucky enough to try their hand at rowing the vintage vessel. This year’s open day, however, will be a little different for Joe who has decided to retire in July after three decades of selfless service.

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to have been the coxswain but it’s time to hang my wellies up and relax. I’m going to miss it… it’s been part of my life for so long, but I’m looking forward to not having a pager, not having to stay in the town.”

As full-time coxswain, Joe gets two weekends off per month (provided there is someone else in the town to cover his position). As Joe knows only too well, being permanently on call isn’t particularly conducive to family life.

“I couldn’t have done it without Sarah, my wife, and our extended family. I’m looking forward to not having to ask for help. Sarah’s a senior staff nurse and she works nights. When the kids were younger they were getting bailed out to different grannies and aunties. One of the driving forces of me retiring is to spend more time with the family. When you’re full-time, you miss so much. Things like family events… and when you miss them, you never get them back. It’s not until you live it, you realise how restricting it is.”

That said, Joe has plenty to be thankful for and will certainly look back on his time at Troon Lifeboat Station with pride. One incident in particular sticks in his mind.

“I won a bravery award in 2015 for the rescue of a fishing vessel off Turnberry Point. It was drifting to the rocks in a force 11, so not very nice. We went down and took over the tow from Girvan.”

He shows me a framed copy of the ‘Thanks of the Institution’, the original of which (on Vellum) is displayed proudly at his home. The ‘Letter of Thanks’ awarded to the crew in relation to the same incident is also on display at the station, along with countless other certificates of recognition awarded to other crew members.

When he retires later this year, he will learn exactly how many hours he has served at sea and how many lives have been saved as a result. Whatever the number, he has every reason to be proud. Not only is he fully deserved of his Citizen of the Year award, he’s also more than entitled to treat himself to some well-earned rest.

“I think I’ve done my bit for the community. I’m the longest serving operational member on the boat. It’s time for some new ideas, some fresh ideas to the station. It’s time for the young team to pick up the life jacket and carry on.”

Bearing in mind Joe is still ten years short of the RNLI’s retirement age for All Weather Lifeboat stations, it’s perhaps no surprise that his colleagues and crew have asked if he might return in a voluntary capacity.

“I’m not saying no,” he admits, “but not this year. I want this year away from pagers and phones. And I think the station needs time for the new coxswain to come in without me being there.”

It’s just the kind of generous response I would expect from Joe. And to prove his character still further he adds: “All good things must come to an end. But let’s not call it an end, it’s just a new chapter without me in it. It’s a new chapter for Troon Lifeboat Station.”

In the meantime, Joe is still fully focused on his RNLI responsibilities. However, that doesn’t stop him looking forward to his retirement.

“I’m looking forward to going to my bed knowing that it’s only myself that’s going to wake me up, not a pager.”

He’s under no illusion, though, that after 32 years, a life without the RNLI will take some getting used to.

“I think it’s really going to hit me as the weeks are dropping away. I’m going to really miss it. It’s been my life.”

The team at AM would like to wish Troon’s Citizen of the Year a very long and happy retirement. All the very best, Joe!