What's it really like?
Matt Steeden is a volunteer crew member from Swanage Lifeboat Station in Dorset, on the South coast of England
I’ve always been involved with the RNLI ever since I was a small boy – my grandfather was Coxswain and my dad has been on the crew for over 30 years; he’s now the current coxswain. My older brother and cousin are also on the crew. I’ve always enjoyed boats and being on the water, so I guess it was just something I’d always wanted to do.
We exercise every Wednesday evening and run through various drills – this might involve towing, anchoring, navigation or first aid, for example. The most common type of ‘shout’ is to broken-down boats (engine failure, etc.), requiring a tow, but can be as varied as rescuing trapped animals from the cliff-side or children who’ve been blown out to sea on an inflatable at the beach.
The best part of the job is definitely helping people – it’s the primary reason I joined up and the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. The camaraderie within the crew is also great – it feels like a second family. The worst part is definitely being woken up by the pager in the middle of the night and having to leave your bed and dash to the station, especially on a cold night in the middle of winter!
I have two roles on the crew: I’m Helmsman and Assistant Mechanic. My responsibilities as Mechanic are essentially to get the boat running and maintain it whilst at sea. As Helmsman, I lead the crew on the inshore lifeboat – I make sure the boat gets to where it where it needs to be and that any casualties are dealt with and given the appropriate care.
You don’t need any formal academic qualifications to become an RNLI volunteer; what you do need is good eyesight, a good bill of health and to be physically fit. The RNLI gives us all the training we require to fulfil our roles once we’ve signed up as volunteers. RNLI volunteers don’t get paid – we give our time for free. I don’t plan on leaving! I can’t imagine any other volunteering role that would be as fulfilling, if I’m honest.
As a volunteer, you can progress right up to the position of Coxswain or Lifeboat Operations Manager, the most senior positions at the station. Alternatively, you could seek a career at the RNLI as a paid staff member – the skills acquired on the crew as a volunteer could potentially be applied to several roles within the Operations department.
I can’t stress enough the dedication required – you need to make sure you can commit to the RNLI 100 per cent; lifeboating isn’t just a job or a hobby but a way of life. You also need to consider the impact this will have on your family. You need commitment, a willingness to learn, and you must be a ‘people person’. Don’t be shy!
A Lifeboat Volunteer crews a Royal National Lifeboat Institution rescue lifeboat, and is responsible for helping with a variety of maritime rescue operations. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is the charity that saves lives at sea. It operates a fleet of lifeboats around the United Kingdom and Ireland. It was founded in 1824, and since this date it has saved more than 139,000 lives. The fleet of over 330 boats is crewed by around 4660 volunteers, the majority of whom are unpaid. In addition to this, there are 3,000 volunteer shore helpers and station management, and 35,000 voluntary fundraisers. The lifeboat service aims to reach at least 90% of all casualties within 10 nautical miles of lifeboat stations within 30 minutes of launch in all weathers. The charity also has lifeboats on the River Thames and aims to get to 95% of reported casualties within 15 minutes of notification. In addition to this the RNLI has four hovercraft on station, which operate in the intertidal areas of mud banks and sand inaccessible to conventional lifeboats.
As well as volunteer lifeboat crew members the RNLI employs over 800 lifeguards and is increasing the number of volunteer lifeguards. This service was introduced in 2001 and currently in 2010 the charity patrols over 150 beaches in the UK during the summer season.
Most positions within the RNLI are unpaid, and are staffed on a voluntary basis. Lifeboat volunteers must attend call-outs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and do so out of a desire to help others. There is, however, a range of interesting and prospect-driven employment possibilities within the Institution. Example jobs include boat-building, administrative, secretarial, buying, information technology and fundraising. Some volunteers join the RNLI because they are seeking to progress within the organisation. Most do so because they want to be part of the lifeboat crew itself, and to experience the adrenalin and sense of satisfaction that comes with successful rescue operations.
- Ensure the search and rescue service from the volunteer's local station operates 24 hours a day.
- Conduct search and rescue operations in all weather and seasons, around UK coastline.
- Work with shore helpers to ensure the urgent dispatch of lifeboat from the station.
- Complete emergency repairs of the lifeboat whilst dispatched to a call, or `shout'.
- Administer lifesaving techniques in the rescue of injured persons.
- Assist with the repair of vessels which have become stranded through component failure.
- Assist with the rescue of animals which have become trapped or injured around the coast, and may pose a threat to humans who may try and rescue them.
- Assist with RNLI promotional activities and training exercises.
There are no formal academic barriers to entry to the RNLI. However, due to the dangerous nature of the work, a good level of general fitness is required, and good eyesight is paramount (candidates are subject to a thorough sight test). Training is administered in-house by the charity, and it covers areas such as rescue, resuscitation, towing, anchoring and navigation.
Persons joining must be between the ages of 17 and 45 and must live close to a lifeboat station. A probationary period of one year applies to new applicants.
Skill set requirements vary between positions on the boat.
- The Coxswain takes overall responsibility for the lifeboat. Strong leadership and good decision-making skills are the requisite here, as, after a quick assessment of the type of call, the coxswain can decide which crew members to take to the shout.
- There is also a helmsman of the smaller launch, the in-shore lifeboat. The helmsman must be able to function independently of the all-weather lifeboat, and must often administer first aid in very difficult conditions.
- The mechanic must have a sound understanding of emergency repairs.
- The navigator must be trained in the various on-board GPS systems.
- The communications operator must be trained in the use of radio and digital communications technology.
- General: All crew must be trained on how to talk calmly to any injured persons they have rescued. What can feel like an everyday event to the crew is usually a traumatic and life-altering occurrence for the persons being picked up.
There are very few jobs in the world that place people in such potentially fraught environments as lifeboat work for the RNLI. Any sea rescue, even those that take place in-shore in good conditions, have the potential to turn nasty very quickly. Some shouts last for several hours and occur in the most profoundly difficult nautical environments on earth. This is part and parcel of the role, and those people who do apply to become RNLI crew members understand and accept the risk.
Other stresses are attributable to the 24 hour bleeper. It does not matter what a crew member is doing at the point when the call comes in, it must be stopped to enable the crew member to attend the lifeboat station in a “fast and safe” manner. This can cause pressures on personal relationships and requires an understanding employer if the person is in the employ of another company. Ongoing stress factors can be due to a lack of sleep over a sustained period of shouts. Training takes place on one day per week.
Currently, only one in ten people who join as crew members has a maritime background. All equipment and training is supplied by the RNLI, and this accounts for where a large proportion of the Institution's charity funds are diverted. The RNLI cite good personal skills and an excellent level of fitness as being more important to candidates than any particular maritime or naval experience.
Persons joining as crew members can progress and choose to specialise in navigation or communications, before having the opportunity to progress further to coxswain or helmsman. The positions at the lifeboat stations are also voluntary, and go from support staff up to operations manager. It is worth reiterating that even this role is unpaid.
There is an excellent opportunity for progression within the Institution to enable those who crew the lifeboats to be considered for salaried roles within the organisation. An extended spell with the RNLI may also be of benefit to those considering specialist roles within the Royal Navy or a specialised merchant group overseas. It is an excellent way for untrained people to acquire high-quality maritime training to a very proficient (and well-recognised) standard.