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How do you choose a crew?

We’re often asked how lifeboat crew are picked for rescues and who takes responsibility for making those vital decisions. So we spoke to crew, station volunteers and other experts - and it seems the answer isn’t black and white.

Swanage RNLI lifeboat volunteer crew running to shout

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Put yourself in the coxswain’s boots: your pager’s gone off and you’ve rushed to the station from work. The mechanic’s already there and you learn from your lifeboat operations manager that a fishing boat is sinking 10 miles away. It’s blowing a force 7 and two people are in the water.

You don’t have much time. Which crew members will you consider taking with you?

a) The mechanic and the next three volunteers to run through the door, regardless of skills or experience.

b) Definitely the mechanic (who doubles up as a radar operator) but see if someone with fishing boat experience turns up in the next minute.

c) Hold on for a couple of rookies (to give them experience) and those who’ve not had much sea time recently.

d) Wait a minute or two to see if more experienced hands turn up with casualty care and navigation skills.

Tricky isn’t it? Experts might call this a dynamic risk assessment. To you and me, it means smart thinking on your feet. You want the best crew for the job of course but, when time’s a factor and you’re trying to anticipate all possible outcomes under pressure, is it always clear who that is?

The helm's view

‘Sinking, 10 miles out?’ says Poole Lifeboat Helm Dave Riley. ‘I’d be thinking, hang fire a minute or two, let’s get the right people. I might need someone experienced, someone who can handle a salvage pump.’

David Riley, Poole Lifeboat Helm and RNLI Trainer

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

David Riley, Poole Lifeboat Helm and RNLI Trainer

‘But when people are in the water, it changes things slightly,' Dave continues. 'The urgency to pull them out means a quicker launch, so maybe it could be a rookie who’s first through the door. But what if that means leaving your navigator ashore? Your search patterns might not be as effective at finding those people in the water. The weather could also change for the worse - I’ve had that many times in my 21 years volunteering!’

So which option did Dave choose? You’ll have to read on to find out.

Real-life decisions

In March, Penlee and Sennen Cove lifeboats were involved in the rescue of a 3,600-ton coaster. It had lost power in a force 6 and was drifting ashore with 7 people onboard.

Penlee Coxswain Patch Harvey knew it was going to be a tough job and made sure he only took experienced crew. In the end, they had to pull the coaster to deeper waters, twice, while waiting for a tug big enough to tow the massive vessel to safety. They were at sea for 11 hours, with vessels lurching around in pretty unpleasant conditions - so, it wasn’t ideal for newbies.

And when Lerwick lifeboat crew were called to a sinking fishing trawler, Coxswain Alan Tarby pulled on insider knowledge: ‘Darren, one of our volunteers, worked on the trawler. So I was pleased to see him arrive at the station.’

Darren says: ‘I was picked for the lifeboat and transferred to the trawler to help because I’d worked on her for 5 years. I knew the boat and crew so well.’

Darren and a fellow volunteer, who was picked for his expertise with salvage pumps, helped them abandon ship just in time and they all got away with their lives.

Read more about this rescue and watch the dramatic rescue footage in our Magazine article.

Family ties

What about family connections? Are people from the same family allowed on the same shout? RNLI Senior Operations Manager Oliver Mallinson says: ‘There are no set rules. We leave that to stations to decide. Some are fine with it, some aren’t.’

The Mackay family: Fergus, Janice and Joe Mackay are all volunteer lifeboat crew members at Lochinver

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The Mackay family: Fergus, Janice and Joe Mackay are all volunteer lifeboat crew members at Lochinver

And, perhaps, with good reason. At Penlee, in 1981, RNLI Crew Member Neil Brockman got to the station in time for a rescue but Coxswain Trevelyan Richards turned him down. Neil’s dad, Assistant Mechanic Nigel Brockman, had already been picked for the shout and Trevelyan was reluctant to take two members of the same family in such awful weather. It was a wise decision. In their bid to save others, that hand-picked crew of eight volunteers was lost to the sea later that night.

Read more about this lifeboat tragedy and see our commemorative film.

Abersoch Crew Member Andy 'Gunners' Gunby says: 'Generally it's an unwritten rule at our station that family members don't go afloat together - unless it's time critical and we're lacking crew numbers.'

In June last year, Castletownbere RNLI were involved in the rescue of two fishermen from their sinking boat - and it turned out that the skipper was the brother-in-law of one of the lifeboat crew members. There were more than enough volunteers for that shout so Coxswain Brian O’Driscoll decided that that particular crew member didn’t need to join them. He explains: ‘You’re hoping for the best but thinking about the worst.’

Who decides?

Usually the coxswain or helm will pick their crew in consultation with the station’s launching authority. But, at some stations, the launching authority may do it instead.

Helen Lazenby, Lifeboat Press Officer at Portishead Lifeboat Station says: ‘The deputy launching authority (DLA) selects the crew at our station. If it’s urgent, like people in the water, the first four crew to turn up will go - providing one is a helm of course. If the call is less urgent then the DLA tends to take a little more time and select crew relevant for the shout or those that haven’t been out for a while to keep their skills sharp.’

Helen Lazenby, Lifeboat Press Officer at Portishead Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Helen Lazenby, Lifeboat Press Officer at Portishead Lifeboat Station

‘As Helen says, launching authorities are important in this process,’ says Mark Southwell, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Cowes. ‘We assess each job and look at who turns up, who needs to get out due to the nature of the task and who's been out a lot recently. It's a discussion between our helms, launching authorities and the crew. It's very fair, works well and rarely delays a launch. We've had a lot of immediate launches this year and still get out quick using this selection system.’

Mark Southwell, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Cowes Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Mark Southwell, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Cowes Lifeboat Station

An expert view

RNLI Senior Operations Manager Oliver Mallinson says: ‘That decision bit is always interesting - and not necessarily about haring off with the first people through the door. When you rush you can miss things, make mistakes. So we always say: “Slow down, have a briefing, get the right people.”’

Dave Riley, who is also an RNLI trainer, says: ‘We teach coxswains and helms that they are the most important people at sea. That may sound odd but if they put the feelings of crew first - who may be inexperienced, not able to operate the radar and navigate, unable to start salvage pumps, operate search lights and so on - it could put everyone in danger. It’s always a tough call. We say that waiting for the right crew ensures that the lifeboat and everyone aboard her is safe - and that’s the best option for saving lives at sea.’

So, time’s up. Back to our original scenario: what answer does Dave think is best?

‘Answer D. Hanging on for volunteers skilled in casualty care and navigation,’ he says. ‘… probably.’

Our coxswains and helms choose their crews wisely in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.