Donate now

Local learning: How to make a lifesaver

Becoming a lifeboat crew member or lifeguard isn’t just a matter of doing a short course at the RNLI College. It’s the regular grassroots training that makes a lifesaver

Lifeguard training taking place at Woolacombe and Croyde beaches in North Devon

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Lifeguard training taking place at Woolacombe and Croyde beaches in North Devon

Can you remember everything you’ve ever been taught? We all know skills are much more likely to be retained if you practise often. And the same applies to our lifesavers. As good as the courses are at the RNLI College, it’s the regular training at the coast that enables ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Step by step

Training for our volunteers is more important than it used to be. These days, just one in 10 lifeboat crew members come from a professional maritime occupation. But whatever their profession, lifesavers need a range of skills, from resuscitating a casualty to setting up a tow. They have to handle a wider variety of vessels now too, from kitesurfers to ocean cruisers. And every crew member must be able to operate the kit on the lifeboat.

Rich Eggleton is helm at Dart, in Devon, and also volunteers as a lifeboat training coordinator. He explains: ‘I arrange all of the training sessions on station. We create local exercise plans to cover units of the RNLI’s competence-based training framework.’ This structured framework covers a range of skills needed to complete particular tasks.

Bit by bit, RNLI training transforms people who want to save lives into people who can.

More than he bargained for

Twelve years ago, John Connor from Portpatrick featured in Lifeboat magazine. He had just qualified as a crew member and was keen to put his training into practice.

Now John’s got 12 years of lifesaving under his belt and says the local practical training is key: ‘It becomes second nature. Everybody has their role but can also do other jobs. The boats are getting more sophisticated and people need to be on the ball.’

Today he’s a qualified navigator and is waiting to qualify as a coxswain. What’s more, he met fellow Crew Member Kirstyn Howle at the station and they got married on the lifeboat in 2013.

John Connor

Photo: RNLI/Phil Bestjan

Trainee crew members, for example, learn these basic skills on station in the first 6 months:

  • roles and responsibilities at the lifeboat station
  • personal protective equipment and safe rope work
  • layout of their station’s lifeboat and its equipment.

After that, the weekly crew training exercises focus on teamwork, technical competence and safe operating procedures – things like boathandling, search and rescue, navigation, radio and casualty care (high-level first aid). Exercises replicate real-life emergencies.

St Peter Port crew

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

St Peter Port lifeboat crew

‘When I started I had zero experience, but you have to start somewhere. The training that we do here on station is really valuable. You don’t realise how much you have learned – from the investment the RNLI has made in you – until you’ve trained someone else. Now I can train others to be helms, which is wonderful.’

Sharon Agnew

Photo: RNLI/Andrew Perryman

Action stations

The crew at Dart is typical: they train twice a week, on a rota organised in advance. Most crew can’t commit to every session, due to work or family life. Rich insists that the training’s not a chore: ‘The crew engage in it, so it works. They push for it here! If the crew put a lot into it, they get loads out of it.’

It usually takes at least 12 months to become a fully fledged crew member. But the training doesn’t stop there. Rich explains: ‘To be safe and ready, you’ve got to stay current with your training. You never really know it all.’

Following basic training, crew members can specialise in certain areas. For those with leadership potential there’s development training. Just as it was for past generations, the more experienced crew share their knowledge with the newer crew.

We’ll come to you

Not everyone can take a week or more out of their lives for a course at the RNLI College, so our trainers go to them, with our mobile training unit, at a time that suits the crew. The unit has classroom facilities and lifeboat-specific equipment.

A joint training exercise between lifeguards and lifeboat crew at Whitesands, Pembrokeshire

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

A joint training exercise between lifeguards and lifeboat crew at Whitesands, Pembrokeshire

‘I didn’t realise how much training there was and how comprehensive it would be! One guy volunteers as training officer and tells us what we need to do next. It’s twice a week – Thursday evening and Sunday morning. You go down as often as you can, and the boat launches every 10 days. You need to do a minimum of 12 exercises a year – quite a commitment when you’ve got a family and a full-time job.

‘Some nights I go home absolutely buzzing because I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone. The people are brilliant, supportive and encouraging. They say: “Yep, you can do it, just get on with it.” They look out for you.

‘And helping someone else in need is the ultimate aim. You could save somebody’s life. Even in winter when I’m tired, I think: “Yes, I want to go down to the station and do some training.”’

Cathy Holland, Ramsey Crew Member

Photo: RNLI Ramsey


On a shout, it’s the regular training that makes the crew work together seamlessly. Rich says: ‘Training builds trust in each other. We all know what to do. As helm you have to have confidence in your crew. You learn their strengths and limits in training.’

If you ever visit a lifeboat station on a training night, you’ll feel the buzz when the crew comes together. Camaraderie builds up over the months and years. The sense of community and friendships formed are so strong, it can feel like one big family.

On the beaches

Lifeguards too have most of their training at the coast, in their local area. To be an RNLI lifeguard, you must first be qualified in lifesaving and casualty care. Training topics covered include introduction to the RNLI, prevention and critical incidents. The training on the beaches starts as early as March, so it’s vital to refresh it when the season begins.

Cavan Walker, who is new to lifeguarding, trained this year in the Scarborough area. He benefited from the local sessions: ‘Training on a beach is so much better than any other type as it offers real-world scenarios such as swell and wind, which can’t be replicated in a pool. It also enables the lifeguards to learn about a specific beach’s topography and how that beach is run.’

During the season, lifeguards have 1 hour’s official training each week. Lifeguards also have to pass a fitness and competency test each month when they’re on the beaches. Plus during the summer, there’s the well-known lifeguard motto: ‘If it’s raining, it’s training.’ As you might imagine given our climate, lifeguards get a lot of training.

Lifeguard Supervisor Matt Jones says: ‘The training gives our crews and lifeguards confidence in their own abilities.’ Matt recalls one day last year when a team of local lifeguards did eight rescues in one day to stand-up paddleboarders: ‘Those lifeguards used many of their core lifeguard skills – rescue board work and VHF radio communications.’

Like the crew, lifeguards get trained in how to use the specific kit and craft on their patch: all-terrain vehicles, inshore rescue boats, rescue watercraft or 4x4 vehicles.

Training lifeguards isn’t just about rescues in the surf. Ninety-five per cent of a lifeguard’s job is preventative, so they must also learn to deal with the public, and to spot dangers before they happen. More experienced lifeguards are hands-on with the training, passing on their skills to the new recruits. The RNLI supports those with potential, giving them the management skills they need to become senior lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors.

Crew training exercise at Minehead Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Crew training exercise at Minehead Lifeboat Station

The lifesaving community

RNLI-trained lifesavers are a real asset to any community. Many lifeguards maintain their fitness and retain their skills throughout the year, training at surf lifesaving clubs. Matt says: ‘Often we find ourselves helping the public after hours and out of season.’

This year Matt introduced a community safety pod at Cayton Bay, North Yorkshire, where qualified lifeguards can access rescue equipment at any time. Already, off-duty lifeguards have done two rescues using the pod, including saving one woman cut off by the tide who needed medical care.

As well as his full-time role as lifeguard supervisor, Matt is also on the local lifeboat crew. ‘We organise joint training sessions with lifeboat crew and lifeguards. Plus we all train with other local lifesavers like the coastguard, cliff rescue and ambulance service.

‘Without the RNLI training, we wouldn’t be half as efficient as we are. The training makes us a second-to-none service. It’s fantastic.’

Let’s leave the last word to one of our newest lifesavers, Lifeguard Cavan: ‘RNLI training offers something for everyone to make their lives better. For me it was the social skills and the sense of community. These helped me find a job that would give me something worthwhile to do – something worthwhile to myself and to the public.’

Fancy joining the RNLI family? Find out how giving up some of your time can make a lifesaving difference.