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1995: The Safety at Sea initiative

In 1995, sea safety bodies and marine industries joined forces with the RNLI to ensure prevention messages reached those most in danger at sea.

Former RNLI Operations Director Michael Vlasto

Photo: RNLI / Jon Jones

Former RNLI Operations Director Michael Vlasto addressing an audience about sea safety

For almost 170 years, the RNLI had responded with unflinching bravery to incidents at sea, as they occurred. Yet the realisation was growing that prevention would be better than cure.

The organisation’s wealth of experience and knowledge could surely be of help in promoting safety at sea and preventing accidents before they happened. With that aim in mind, 1994 saw the appointment of the first RNLI Sea Safety Officer to oversee the institution's role in preventative work. It was a year later, in 1995, that a more high profile campaign got underway.

Mike Floyd, former editor of Lifeboat, observed: ‘Over the years, several bodies have been active in the sea safety role, and so the RNLI, while anxious to play its part, was determined that it should not be seen to be charging rough-shod into an arena in which others had been patiently working for some time. What it could see quite clearly at the outset was how it could work with all of them … and perhaps form the nucleus around which a major, combined effort could be formed.

Enter Michael Vlasto…

The man chosen for the new Sea Safety Officer role was Michael Vlasto, an experienced ex-merchant navy officer who had already served for 19 years with the RNLI, first as Divisional Inspector of Lifeboats in Scotland, Wales and the North West, and then as a Training Officer.

With an average of about 100 lives being lost at sea each year through swimming, boating, watersports and other coastal leisure activities, Michael knew he couldn’t tackle everything at once and chose to start with pleasure boats. His first step was to explore links with other bodies and form a loose-knit coalition and then, finally, a more formal group.

By the end of 1994 this group was a reality, bringing together a multitude of talents under the umbrella title of the Sea Safety Liaison Working Group, which saw involvement from the Coastguard Agency; the Royal Yachting Association (RYA); the Marine Safety Agency; the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS); and the British Marine Industries Federation.

In addition to this formidable array, close links began to be forged with other bodies with a vested interest in sea safety, including fishermen's federations, diving organisations and other watersports governing bodies.

The first outside signs of this link-up was the 1995 London International Boat Show when the first booklet, Safety Guidelines for Recreational Boat Users, was launched. This publication had been funded by the new coalition of sea safety groups, and was soon followed by three further booklets providing guidelines to reduce machinery failure. These were aimed at pleasure craft, diving support craft and fishing vessels and were in response to statistics showing that machinery failure was the main cause of call-outs.

Michael went on to become RNLI Operations Director for 16 years and played a crucial part in steering the charity from a lifeboating organisation to one which now includes lifeguards, flood rescue teams, lifeboats on the River Thames and lifesaving training abroad.