The England wing explains that because the RNLI has braved the high seas to come to the rescue of generations of fishermen in his family, he feels compelled to give something back
Jack Nowell is lionised for his bravery and determination on the rugby field, yet his on-pitch courage pales in comparison to that shown by the many of his family members and childhood friends who put themselves in danger at sea on a daily basis.
The England winger, 25, was born and raised in Newlyn, a small seaside town in south-west Cornwall, and the Nowell family has been a central part of the caring, tight-knit fishing community for centuries. “We have always been fishermen, generation after generation, for as long as can be traced back,” he says. “I’m actually the first one to have not followed that career path.”
The tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life
Nowell recalls that when he was a child, his father Mike would be forced to spend week-long stints out on the water to earn his living and care for the family. “He and his brother – my uncle – would come back with lobster, monkfish, sole, crab, and other fish, and that would be our food for the next week,” he continues. “I probably overdid the fish eating when I was younger. Now I tend to choose a burger over lobster if I’m at a fancy restaurant.”
A video, taken on Mike’s phone, made a big impression on Jack as a youngster. “Waves were coming over the front of his boat and the whole vessel was being swallowed up,” he says. “It was scary but Dad had to do that. He showed great mental toughness to go out in all conditions to provide for us. I could never compare that to what I do on the rugby field.
Jack’s admiration for his father’s job is as deep as the gratitude he has for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), whose members have rescued Mike on numerous occasions – most recently in November when, in the early hours, his trawler’s motor failed 23 miles out to sea.
“I’ve worked with the RNLI for a couple of years now and I am delighted to support the charity because I feel like I’m giving back something for all the care they have provided to my family and friends in Newlyn,” Jack says en route to his home town to shoot a film, showcasing this special relationship, for the Telegraph and Dove+ Men Care. “It is special for me to support things where I come from and the tiny Penlee Lifeboat Station has always been a big part of my life. When I was offered the chance to get involved with them I bit their hand off.
“Our house is just up from the station and I remember as kids me and my brothers would watch crew running across the bridge and the RNLI boat rushing off into the sea. It was exciting to see and we would wonder what was happening, whether it was really serious, or not.
“I was brought up on the water and made well aware of the dangers. I know all the RNLI guys because everyone knows everyone here in Newlyn, and they chuck themselves in the water to save people, putting their own lives at risk.”
Indeed, RNLI Penlee Lifeboat Station is synonymous with bravery and its crews have been garlanded with close to 50 awards for gallantry in a history stretching back to 1803. There have been tragedies, though, with the worst happening one December night in 1981, a dozen years before Nowell was born, when all eight RNLI crew perished in an attempted rescue.
“That happened a couple of miles from our house,” Nowell says. “The weather was awful and unfortunately they lost their lives, but every single RNLI crew member is aware that could happen – and they are still willing to go out and do it.”
To show his appreciation for the RNLI’s selfless and risky work, Nowell has fronted a number of awareness campaigns. Last year he produced a traditional English Pale Ale, with the help of the nearby St Austell Brewery. Five pence from the sale of every pint of Cousin Jack during the 2017 RBS Six Nations Championship, in which Nowell featured in and England won, went to the RNLI. More than 100,000 pints were bought. “I think most of them were poured in Newlyn,” he jokes.
Jack’s relatives have displayed their thanks to the RNLI for their care too. In April his mother, Louisa, and her sister raised more than £5,000 by running the London marathon. Bravery, it seems, runs in the Nowell family. This England star has the strength and desire to support the RNLI, whose care has kept his father and Newlyn fishing community safe for more than two centuries.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in May 2018