I've been a volunteer crew member for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in the UK for around 6 years, and recently also became a helmsman. In the context of the inshore lifeboat this means that I am now in charge on a 'shout' & have an awful lot more responsibility. First and foremost we are there to save lives at sea.

It's surprising how many people don't realise that the RNLI is an independent charity and does not receive government funding. It provides the majority of emergency lifeboat cover around the coastline of the UK and the island of Ireland - almost completely crewed by volunteers.

I'm not a press person or anything like that, and this isn't an official post by the RNLI. I'm just doing it off my own back on the off-chance that anyone is interested!

Some 'proof' - hope that's enough!

EDIT: Well, off to bed now - work in the morning. If any more questions appear I'll continue to answer them tomorrow! Cheers.

EDIT: I'm back checking on here, and composing some replies to post a bit later. I'll keep answering any new questions - though there might be a delay depending on work/sleep commitments ;-)

Comments: 45 • Responses: 20  • Date: 

weveallhadadrink2 karma

Could you describe what sort of training you receive? Are you expected to be a strong swimmer? What kind of joint training do you do with the coastguard and other emergency services? And if you could spread one message to reduce the number of people using your services, what would it be? Also, you're doing something brilliant for an amazing organisation, so thank you very much :)

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

OK, so nearly all the training takes place on station. There's a system of units covering various skills that are required, loosely split into shore-based training and afloat training. At the most basic level these are things like knowing where everything is on the boat, and all about your PPE and how to use it properly, and what to do in the event of a capsize.

Once the helms (or whoever is responsible on station) are happy that you're competent in a given area, you'll be tested by a divisional assessor who visits stations to perform the actual assessments. Once you've passed the basics you can start to go to sea and learn the more involved skills - from driving the boat to operating the radar and plotter, radio, learning how to search effectively etc. The exact mix of skills depends on the type of boat[s] your station has. Some things are common, others are boat specific.

Your speed of progression depends entirely on how much effort you're prepared to put in. You start out as a probationer - this is the time when you have to show your willing by turning up each week, helping with cleaning, making tea etc. Things which might seem menial to some but are all necessary and all part of bonding as a crew.

At some point you'll pass your probation and become a trainee. This means you've stuck it out, passed your basic assessments and are now moving on to the real training. At this point you'll likely get your week in Poole as well (stations differ on how they handle this - we like to send people to Poole once they've gained a bit of experience with us - other stations might send people sooner). You'll also start to be taken on shouts as your experience & competence grows.

Down at Poole, they are always monitor how their courses are run and make improvements as they see fit. When I went as trainee crew, I did an ILB specific course. In recent years, there has been more crossover between ALB and ILB crews. The basic crew course of whatever format is a week long and covers just about everything to some level - from learning basic knots to veering the boat from its anchor close in to rocks. Everyone also has to go through the [in]famous capsize and survival drills in the sea survival pool. Safe to say it will be a dark and stormy night when you go inside ;-).. there are quite a few videos on Youtube I think.

As to swimming, well everyone has different strengths. Personally I'm not the fastest or best swimmer in the world, but I am confident in the water. Others on our crew are regular dolphins - those are the ones I'd send ashore on a shout if it was needed. You certainly need a level of confidence - probationers will likely find themselves in the water often to start with - it allows them (and the helms) to find out how they cope. You also have to be able to climb back into the boat unaided. On inshore boats we wear drysuits all the time so you have to get used to getting wet (there's no cabin). On ALBs they have more normal waterproofs (but also carry dry suits for when they might be needed).

We do some training with the lifeguards - usually at the start of their season, also with the rescue helicopters from time to time (it's hard to do this regularly due to all the variables involved). I guess we don't really train with other emergency services particularly - though of course we work closely with the local coastguard on most shouts. They are usually involved whether it's offering 'words of advice' to people who should have known better, through to rescuing people from cliffs using their rope access equipment.

Hmm, what one message? Maybe it's a bit clichéd, but 'have respect for the sea'. I've seen it change from millpond smooth to moderately rough within a couple of hours. Some people think going out in a boat requires as much preparation as driving to the corner shop for a bottle of milk... if you think like that one day you're definitely going to get caught out!

WooolSheep2 karma

The RNLI is a great organisation is it both public and government funded or solely public? Also how do you join the RNLI with the hope of becoming part of the lifeboat crew, you guys do a great job.

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Hi, yes it's an independent charity and doesn't receive government funding. Nearly all crew are volunteers. I can't give you all the ins and outs of the finances as I don't know - but being a charity it must be publicly available somewhere.

If you want to join, the best thing to do is turn up at your local station and make yourself known. They may have their own website, or you can find out who to contact via the main RNLI.org website too. You do have to have a medical, but it's pretty basic. There's also a fitness test but again it's more to do with the health of your heart rather than finding out if you're superman - though you do need a basic level of fitness of course, especially on an ILB where you don't have a comfy seat OR a kettle (one day... one day ;-)

TheParisOne2 karma

what's the furthest you've had to sail out to sea to rescue someone? How many fake call outs do you have? What is the most bizarre thing you've had to rescue?

dorset_is_beautiful9 karma

Hi, well as we're an inshore lifeboat we don't have to go too far out as a rule as we're best at fast response in local waters. I guess we went out around 10/11 miles to a vessel this year - but normally we'd not be going that far. The jobs far out to sea are undertaken by the ALBs (All weather lifeboats) which, as the name suggests, can also operate in any conditions. As an open RIB, we can't always launch if the sea is too rough or weather is too bad.

We're lucky in that we don't seem to get too many fake callouts - though there were a few earlier in the year. Unfortunately when someone says the magic word 'Mayday' over the radio it triggers a full response from the coastguard and they would almost certainly request us to launch in that situation. We get more of what we call 'false alarm with good intent' which is when someone thinks they may have seen something. It is up to the coastguard then to decide whether it is worth requesting a lifeboat launch.

Hmm, can't think of anything bizarre that I've been involved with. A few years ago the boat did go out to investigate a partially submerged object which turned out to be an upside down home-made raft with an engine of some kind bolted to it. It had been in the water a while - no idea where it had come from or what it was for!

TheParisOne1 karma

thanks for the reply :)

How did you get involved in this type of thing? Do you need to have sailing qualifications?

dorset_is_beautiful6 karma

Hi again. It's something I always wanted to do I suppose. As a child I'd go out with my granddad on his little fishing boat (with no modern safety equipment!). But, it took until much later in life before I lived close enough to the sea and a Lifeboat station to be able to volunteer. I'd done a bit of dingy sailing, and crewed once or twice on bigger sailing boats with a local club. Its just something I'd always thought about. You have to live (or work) close to a station though, otherwise there's not much point.

You don't need any qualifications other than a willingness to give up your time and an ability to learn. All training, kit etc is provided. New crew attend a week course down at RNLI HQ in Poole (or 'Lifeboat Disneyland' as I like to call it ;-)

The days of crews being made up mostly of local fishermen and seafarers are sadly long gone I think. (I sail a desk during the day).

EvilSpatula1 karma

I loved the HQ when i was there for my Trainee crew course. Looking forward to my next week down for SARNAV course. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TCpsea5X9g this is a video of the training there for anyone interested.

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Hah hah I'd not seen that one before. It all looks very warm and sunny though. NAVSAR is a great course, really enjoyed it. Though, when I did COMSAR the weather was horrific and given how wet and cold I was, I really felt for the poor D-class folks who were much wetter and colder!

Bat_turd2 karma

What/when was the worst weather you have seen? How was it? We're you scared?

dorset_is_beautiful5 karma

I have been scared in the past when the boat has been operating at its limit. In those situations however you would launch with your most experienced helm and crew because the conditions are such that you have to be able to rely on each other 100%. These days I am more experienced so not so worried - but there are still times when I've mentally run through the 'capsize drill' just in case...

But there are other types of bad weather that are not scary but also unpleasant. For example when it is rough and you're going fast you can get beaten up quite a lot if the person driving is not reading the waves as well as they might (anyone with a fast vessel will know all about 'slamming' in heavy seas!).

I've also been driving when there was so much wind and spray that it was hard to see the compass right in front of me let alone anything out in the water.

Then there's the times your hands have gone numb from the cold and you're struggling to handle ropes or other equipment.

Or even in the height of summer when you're working hard, wearing your thermal under suit, dry suit, life jacket, helmet etc and sweating like there's no tomorrow!

dyslexia_n00b2 karma

How fast can you boat go? Any pics?

Whats the worst weather you have experienced? And any tales of dramatic rescues?

dorset_is_beautiful6 karma

We have an Atlantic 85 lifeboat which is the second fastest type in the RNLI's fleet (only the 'E' class on the Thames are faster). We can do 35 knots in ideal conditions - this is by design. The engines/hull could go a lot faster but it's not all about speed - the boat has to survive a battering by the sea, carry 4 crew and a lot of kit, self righting equipment, fuel, ballast etc so it's a balance of speed, handling, comfort, and so on. They're always trying out new tweaks and changes to improve things too.

The worst weather I have experienced was at the operational limits of our inshore boat - approximately a Force 7 in rough seas, with a huge swell banking up. When you're only a mile from home but can't see it because the waves are too high you gain a healthy respect for the sea.. (and also the boat, and your crew mates!). I have certainly been a bit scared, especially in the early days.

Dramatic rescues? Well our station has had a few - boats on fire, badly injured cliff fallers etc. For me personally it's probably anything where you're operating with a Sea King rescue helicopter hovering close by. The skill of those guys is amazing. I'm going to miss them when they're gone in the next year or so, that's for sure.. (although I have no doubt the new service will be just as good).

Ooh! I've just remembered my most bizarre rescue - I was on a navigation training course at the RNLI college in Poole, and we were out on a night-time exercise with an instructor. We'd gone wrong in the dark so were heading back to a known point to try again when we came across someone swimming in the middle of Poole harbour! They were stark naked and claimed to have swum into the harbour from Sandbanks I think. They were reluctant for us to help them but we managed to persuade them aboard and took them back to Poole & handed them over to an ambulance. If we hadn't made a mistake with our navigation we'd never have stumbled across them and I'm certain they would have died out there in the middle of the harbour in the dark. Crazy. Then we went back out for another couple of hours to complete our navigation exercise! And now anyone who knows me will be able to identify me from that incident lol ;-)

Eternally651 karma

When I was in the Hebrides, I saw a lifeboat that looked like a giant torpedo - completely sealed up. Is that the kind of boat you have, or is it what you called an ALB? How do they get out in heavy seas to rescue anything at all if they have to remain sealed themselves?

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Did it look a bit like this? (random picture from the web) http://goo.gl/kCyOQt

If so it was probably an emergency survival lifeboat from a big ship by the sound of it. Some of them are designed to drop into the sea from high up on the vessel's superstructure (hence the torpedo shape). So, designed to save the crew of the vessel it is from, rather than to launch to save people from somewhere else.

You can see all the current types of RNLI lifeboat here - both ALB and ILB:


Dreigiau1 karma


dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Hi sorry missed this one before. As I said elsewhere it was just something that was always in the back of my mind. Then one day the opportunity presented itself and I went for it.

People join from all backgrounds and for all sorts of reasons. However I think the training and commitment required tends to weed out the people who are just there because they think it's all about driving boats fast and showing off...

drapingflannels1 karma

We're you one of the guys who was on that show about the best British bakery? Those salmon muffins looked terribly disappointing.

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Heh well I've not seen that so I'll have to take your word about the disappointing baked products. For the record some of our crew are definitely wizards with the cake mix... (I am not one of them ;-)

gneas1 karma

Just wondering why you're solely an ILB crew member, does your station not have an ALB? If it does, do you plan on going on a development programme for that too?

How many shouts have you had so far this year? With this summer, I imagine most ILBs got a lot of action! Is there any that stood out for you in particular?

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Yes, we only have an ILB (Atlantic 85). The RNLI conducts regular reviews of the coastline and looks at what resources are needed and where. So, an ALB station will often have an ILB as well. Some stations have two ILBs. It just depends on the local area and the numbers and types of shouts that they have. They try to make sure that the craft best suited to the job is on station. Plus there is the cost - an Atlantic 85 currently costs around £200,000. A new Shannon costs I think £1.5m... That's a lot of tin-shaking!

Obviously your training will be tailored to whatever you have on station. An Atlantic 85 can launch with 3 crew minimum, but 4 ideally One will be the helm, the others will be full crew or trainees depending on requirements and availability.

An ALB might have six - but one of those will be the coxswain, one will be the mechanic, one will be the navigator - so the roles can be quite different depending.

We've had around 30 shouts so far this year. The ones that usually stand out tend to be the unpleasant ones - unfortunately it's not all towing cabin cruisers full of supermodels on calm sunny days!

ignore_my_typo1 karma

I'm a member of RCM-SAR, the RNLI equivalent volunteer lifeboat organization in Canada. www.rcmsar.com and have been a member for 7 years and a Coxswain for 4. We run with about 20 crewmembers in a small town on the south-west of Vancouver Island and we get about 40 taskings a year, give or take.

My question is, how many shout-outs does your Station receive in a year?

If you ever find yourself in the west coast of Canada please let me know and we'll have you out on our boat.. I may be heading to the UK in the next year of so to visit the RNLI college. Looking forward to it!

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Hi, good to hear from you!. Well, we've had around 30 shouts this year so far, so there's a chance we might make 40 before the end. Sounds like we're a very similar size station to you too.

I'd certainly love to go for a spin on your boat. Sadly I can't see me making it over to Canada any time soon - but you never know.

Hopefully you'll have a great visit to the RNLI HQ / College - it's a fantastic place. From your website it looks like you're trying to build something similar over there? It certainly makes a difference having such a varied training environment available.

For anyone else reading this - it doubles as a hotel so you can stay there. There are also tours available from time to time - you may well get to see the RNLI crews being put through their paces in the sea survival pool :-)

crazycharlieh1 karma

On what part of the coast? I live on the coast.

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Hi, I am on the west coast - west is best, so they say ;-)

inflateable1 karma

What is the relationship like between RNLI beach lifeguards and the offshore crews? Esp. considering the beach guys get a wage? Is there coordination between the two on a shout?, eg IRB versus ILB?

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Hi, no problems that I'm aware of! We're all there to save lives / keep people safe. We usually do some training with them at the start of the season - we're all part of the RNLI. (though, we reserve the right to take the mickey out of their glossy hair, good looks, and tanned skin.... we're not jealous, oh no not at all :-D

More seriously, they perform a complimentary role - they can deal with the rubber dinghies being blown out to sea more effectively, even just by warning people of the danger who simply don't realise. They can of course react to swimmers in trouble much more quickly (that's their main job after all!). If they have Rescue Water Craft (RWC) such as the Arancia IRB or jet skis - they can operate these in surf conditions close inshore. This is a very dangerous place for a large heavy IRB such as the Atlantic 85, let alone an ALB... Though - we would go close in and take the risks of capsize etc. if it meant saving a life. They're on the beach all day so may well spot, say a boat in distress and contact the coastguard more quickly than if the weren't there.

They can use the coastguard VHF channel, so during a major incident the CG operation centre, CG rescue teams, lifeboats and lifeguards can all operate together effectively. They also can use the RNLI VHF channel of course, so can operate 'privately' with lifeboats if required. Though of course anything broadcast on the radio is never private!

Personally, I think they HAVE to be paid - it's a full time job after all. It would be asking a lot to have volunteers work all day every day on the beach - everyone has bills to pay. They are also assessed regularly as they have stringent fitness requirements - which makes sense if you think about it. No good having a lifeguard paddle out to rescue someone then be too tired to assist. I think they are re-assessed monthly for swimming fitness on a time/distance basis.

At the end of the day, each crew / team / vessel has its own strengths and weaknesses, but when we operate together we should be able to handle most situations.

Hope that's useful/interesting!

inflateable1 karma

Ah, good stuff, interesting! I'm a volunteer beach lifeguard (private beach, and the owners are too tight to pay the council for RNLI cover) and we're pretty much on our own with an IRB and channel 16 if it's getting hairy. I wondered how it's supposed to work.... I'm always under the impression that the beach guys and the offshore guys are two separate entities almost.

How does the Atlantic differ from an Arancia? Bigger, obviously, more powerful engines, but more stuff to carry too? Do you train in the surf zone?

I think the RNLI have their own beach lifeguard standard beyond the NARS qualifiction minimum - I know they pool train once a week anyway, and get paid for it...

EDIT - gah, the Atlantic isn't the boat I had in my head, I was thinking of a D Class.

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

Well the way I think it works is that the RNLI provide all the training and the kit for the lifeguards, whilst the councils then effectively pay for their wages. So I guess it works out as a cheaper deal for the council, and less hassle too. I suspect they're not paid very much though! I think there are still plenty of non RNLI lifeguards around as well as volunteers such as yourself.

Well the B (Atlantic) and D class are life boats, where as the Arancia is a rescue boat. I don't know the official wording, but to me the lifeboats can operate in heavier seas, carry more people and kit (radio, GPS plotter, 1st aid, oxygen, etc) and can operate with helicopters etc. So, bigger & heavier, built more robustly to take more punishment. A B class also has ballast tanks that can hold 2-300kg of water if required (forget the exact amount) - this can help in rough seas.

As I mentioned before, it's pretty dangerous for a lifeboat to be in the surf zone (depends on local situations obviously). The Arancia was designed for it however (Australian??) and, when properly operated is an amazing little boat - very responsive. Easy to get it wrong as well though so training is important of course. However it doesn't carry much kit when lifeguards are using it (to my knowledge, as non-RNLI you may well do something different?) I see it as a fast taxi service!

If we did have to get in close amongst the rocks and surf, our usual option is to veer from the anchor, thus keeping the boat head to sea at all times and minimizing the risks of a capsize. It's probably one of the more dangerous things we train for, and can be pretty time consuming to set up and execute on an 85. The D class seems more suited to it and they can set up & go more quickly. Plus as they can bounce off the rocks with less damage than the RIBs! When it is rough there's a lot of strain on lines, engines, and crew as we're bounced around in the boat.

However sometimes they helm may decide there's not time / space to veer - and you often see videos on the RNLI website where they do a dash-and-grab raid in between wave sets - the Helm has to be sure that it's worth the risk to do this though. If you get caught side or stern-on to the waves there's a good chance it's all going to go a bit Pete Tong...

Edit: forgot to say but regarding radio channels - I'd imagine that if you needed to work with the CG/Lifeboats they'd just nominate a working channel such as 67 or whatever they tend to use locally so you'd all be able to communicate that way.

beingversatile1 karma

Sorry for my ignorance, but it sounds like you aren't getting paid for what you do. Do you have another job outside of the RNLI to support yourself?

dorset_is_beautiful1 karma

That is correct. Almost all lifeboat crew are volunteers and have daytime jobs and lives they have to fit in around training, rescues and other commitments.

There are a few exceptions such as some crew on the Thames who are paid as they are so busy they essentially work shifts and stay at the station. There also used to be a remote lifeboat station on Spurn point where people lived in houses next to the station as it was so remote. But I'm not sure if that's still the case now.

boss_electro1 karma

I too think Dorset is beautiful. Do you work anywhere near Christchurch?

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Sadly not. Maybe one day I'll make it to the Dorset coastline though!

kempisdead1 karma

Whats a normal workout for you consist of? Diet?

dorset_is_beautiful6 karma

Hmm, well lots of spinach of course, for super strength! (Though, pipe smoking is somewhat frowned upon these days)

CherryVermilion1 karma

Hey there OP, Dorset is pretty beautiful! I sell the odd pack of raffle tickets here and there for the RNLI, and pop money in the buckets when I see them. The work you do is hard and often goes unnoticed, thank you for giving up your time to help!

I'd love to know how you got involved, what pushed you towards RNLI? Thanks!

dorset_is_beautiful5 karma

Hi, Dorset is beautiful indeed!

Thanks for your support of the RNLI - every penny is useful as it costs a lot to run a big 24-7 operation. As crew, we really appreciate all the others who are involved in fund raising. The crew are only one part of the puzzle. When my pager goes off & I head down to the station, I don't have to wonder whether the boat will be ready to go, or have enough fuel, or whether I'll have a dry-suit & life-jacket to wear. Somebody somewhere will have helped out to make sure that we're ready to go - rain or shine.

As I mentioned above (or below, still getting used to the layout ;) it's just something I always thought about. Then, one day life dealt the next hand, and suddenly I was living near the sea and close enough to a lifeboat station to volunteer.

Actually now I've thought about it a little, I started to consider it again around the time I was doing some dinghy sailing, and there was an independent (non-RNLI) lifeboat station near the sailing club, who I used to see go out on training sometimes whilst I was out on the water. As I used to do a bit of safety boat driving for the club, it seemed to me like something I would find interesting & perhaps be good enough at to be useful! (But I didn't live close enough to volunteer right then and there).

MikeDNewman1 karma

Hey, I'm quite interested in joining a lifeboat association, how do I go about doing that?

dorset_is_beautiful2 karma

Hi, if you mean you're interested in becoming crew, then the best bet is to find out when your local station trains, and to pop along and make yourself known to someone. Usually you'd need to speak to the LOM (Lifeboat operations manager).

Even if they don't need crew right then and there (every station is different in their crewing needs / situation), you can still volunteer to help out - there are usually plenty of jobs to be done from cleaning the boat room floor through to helping launch the boat itself.

If you keep turning up and are willing to pitch in helping out at anything it will be noticed, and if/when they need crew there will be that exciting moment where you're asked if you want to go out for a spin on the boat to see what it's all about...