This is what the great anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin wrote about lifeboats and lifeboatmen in Mutual Aid, with a graphic first person account of an incident. (I have inserted paragraphs to make it easier to read. Here is a link to the book itself, which is still well worth reading. More than ever maybe..
The Lifeboat Association in this country, and similar institutions on the Continent, must be mentioned in the first place. The former has now over three hundred boats along the coasts of these isles, and it would have twice as many were it not for the poverty of the fisher men, who cannot afford to buy lifeboats.
The crews consist, however, of volunteers, whose readiness to sacrifice their lives for the rescue of absolute strangers to them is put every year to a severe test; every winter the loss of several of the bravest among them stands on record.
And if we ask these men what moves them to risk their lives, even when there is no reasonable chance of success, their answer is something on the following lines.
A fearful snowstorm, blowing across the Channel, raged on the flat, sandy coast of a tiny village in Kent, and a small smack, laden with oranges, stranded on the sands near by. In these shallow waters only a flat-bottomed lifeboat of a simplified type can be kept, and to launch it during such a storm was to face an almost certain disaster.
And yet the men went out, fought for hours against the wind, and the boat capsized twice. One man was drowned, the others were cast ashore. One of these last, a refined coastguard, was found next morning, badly bruised and half frozen in the snow. I asked him, how they came to make that desperate attempt?
"I don't know myself," was his reply. "There was the wreck; all the people from the village stood on the beach, and all said it would be foolish to go out; we never should work through the surf.
"We saw five or six men clinging to the mast, making desperate signals. We all felt that something must be done, but what could we do? One hour passed, two hours, and we all stood there. We all felt most uncomfortable.
"Then, all of a sudden, through the storm, it seemed to us as if we heard their cries -- they had a boy with them. We could not stand that any longer. All at once we said, "We must go!" The women said so too; they would have treated us as cowards if we had not gone, although next day they said we had been fools to go.
"As one man, we rushed to the boat, and went. The boat capsized, but we took hold of it. The worst was to see a poor man drowning by the side of the boat, and we could do nothing to save him. Then came a fearful wave, the boat capsized again, and we were cast ashore. The men were still rescued by the D. boat, ours was caught miles away. I was found next morning in the snow."