Saving Christmas

We’re all looking forward to spending time with our loved ones this Christmas. But as the following rescues show, RNLI lifesavers will drop all that in a second when others need their help.

A life in danger

Aith’s Severn class lifeboat in rough weather

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

On a cold, blustery evening in the small Shetland village of Aith, Christmas lights twinkled in the darkness and a warm, cosy glow emanated from the houses dotting the landscape.

Outside, a man’s life was in danger. His 10m creel fishing boat had lost power on the way from Aith to Clousta, and a gale was blowing him dangerously close to the craggy cliffs on the island of Muckle Roe.

Lifeboat Coxswain John Robertson was sitting down to Christmas pudding with his wife, two children and both sets of grandparents when the alarm was raised. ‘We were just choosing which pudding to have – trifle or chocolate gateau.

Lifeboat Coxswain John Robertson

Photo: RNLI/Daniel Lawson

Coxswain John Robertson from Aith Lifeboat Station

‘It was the most urgent shout I’ve been on. The boat was extremely close to the cliffs and I was just praying that we were going to get there in time.’

In atrocious conditions, John skilfully manoeuvred the lifeboat into position. It took three attempts to set up the tow rope so that they could pull the boat away from the rocks. ‘Huge waves were breaking over the stern of the lifeboat,’ says John. ‘But once we got into the shelter of the land and out of the open sea, the sea calmed down.’ 

They returned to a Christmas Day welcome back at the station before going home to their families. ‘I was proud that I managed to get every one of us home in one piece,’ reflects John. ‘It was a team effort. I couldn’t have done it without the rest of the crew. And I thoroughly enjoyed my Christmas trifle!’

Read more about Aith's festive shout, and the people involved, in this article.

Double trouble

The Tynemouth crew board their all-weather lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Adrian Don

Michael Nugent leads the way as the crew board the all-weather lifeboat

Christmas Day festivities took an unusual turn when Tynemouth lifeboat crew were called out to help with an incident on the cliffs in South Shields. The inshore lifeboat was in action again on Boxing Day, to help recover a sailing dinghy that had capsized in the harbour.

Tynemouth RNLI’s Adrian Don recalls: 'Our crew are always ready to respond, whatever the time or day, and thankfully no one was hurt in this incident. We think this is the first time we’ve been called out on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day.’

Crew Member Dave Robinson says: ‘I remember the Christmas Day rescue well. I was sitting down after Christmas dinner watching the TV with my wife and two kids and my daughter’s boyfriend. It was a bit of a wrench but when the pager goes off you don’t know who’s out at sea or who’s in trouble.’

Coxswain Michael Nugent says: ‘The dedication of our crew never ceases to amaze me. They drop everything to go to the aid of others in whatever shape or form that may be.’

Mince pies on hold

Ramsgate crews leaving on Christmas Eve to help a lone yachtsman

Photo: RNLI/Sarah Hewes

As lifeboat families gathered for their annual Christmas Eve social at Ramsgate’s Mariners Bar, the inshore lifeboat crew were called into action. A lone yachtsman was struggling to get into the harbour and was drifting out to sea.

Lifeboat Coxswain Ian Cannon says: ‘This isn’t the first time the crew’s Christmas has been interrupted. Some girls were trapped on a boat in the harbour one Christmas Day. And on Boxing Day in 1985, my dad and the crew went out in hurricane winds to rescue a trawler that had gone aground. More recently, we took some people off a boat that was on fire in the English Channel.’

Families gather for a Christmas carol service at Exmouth Lifeboat Station

Photo: RNLI/Emma Tarling

Over in Exmouth, at around 5.30pm on Christmas Eve 2018, the boathouse was thronging with the sound of guests arriving for the annual carol service. Proceedings were interrupted when a mayday call came in.

The crew launched their D class lifeboat. Because the mayday signal had been so weak, the Coastguard couldn’t pinpoint the vessel’s exact location, so the crew did a thorough search up and down both banks of the tidal section of the River Exe. By the time they returned to the station 1½ hours later for the last of the mince pies, family members and friends had started to drift home.

Crew Member Henry Mock recalls: ‘It was a night of mixed emotions really. We hadn’t found anyone but we knew we couldn’t have done any more. The Coastguard put it down to a hoax call.

‘Our first rescue this year was 6 minutes past midnight last New Year’s Day – a missing person on the seafront, who we found thankfully.’

A surprising casualty

Clifden RNLI rescue bull in distress after slip down steep cliff

Photo: RNLI/Nuala McAloon

In 2018, just 3 days before Christmas, the lifeboat volunteers at Clifden were called to rescue a bull who’d fallen from a steep cliff. 

The animal had slipped and was stuck on the shoreline below, in an area that couldn’t be reached by road. So, the crew launched their Atlantic 85 inshore lifeboat and powered to the scene, where they found the bull, farmer and a local vet. 

Crew Member Thomas Davis was put ashore to help the farmer and vet, and together they attached a bridle to the animal, passed it to the lifeboat, and then slowly guided the bull off the dangerous rocks and into the water. It then swam to a nearby beach and clambered up the shore to safety.

‘We were happy to assist the local farmer and vet to help the bull out of the hazardous position it was in,’ comments Clifden RNLI Helm Alan Pryce. 

Three shouts in as many days

The crew at Yarmouth RNLI go to the aid of a cargo ship

Photo: RNLI/Alex Pimm

In 2017, Yarmouth lifeboat volunteers spent over 19 hours at sea during the festive period. It began on Boxing Day when the Coastguard tasked the crew with keeping an overnight watch on a cargo ship anchored off Lee-on-Solent, listing heavily in rough seas.

‘I was on my parents’ sofa,’ says Station Mechanic Richard Pimm. ‘I remember thinking “That’s dinner out the window”.

Two days later, the lifeboat was called out again. ‘When tugs brought the ship in, we escorted it up Southampton Water,’ says Richard. ‘It was quite a hectic couple of days.’

On their way home, the crew went to help a motorboat adrift off the Needles.

Stuck in the mud

An RNLI lifeguard wearing a red Santa hat while keeping watch on Crosby Beach

Photo: RNLI/Danielle Rush

‘The main risk is people walking out and getting cut off by the tide’

Crosby Beach is the RNLI’s only 365-day-a-year lifeguarded beach. ‘It’s really busy over the festive period,’ says Senior Lifeguard Siobhan Murphy. ‘Whether it’s people looking to work off their Christmas dinner, children looking for space to try their new toys or families keen to show their visiting relatives the [Antony Gormley] statues on the beach.

‘The main risk is people walking out to the statues and getting cut off by the tide or stuck in the mud. A lot of the work we do over the holiday period is prevention – ensuring people are aware of the risks so they can enjoy the Christmas period safely with their families.’

Crosby lifeguards keep watch over their beach on Christmas Day

Photo: RNLI/Danielle Rush

Siobhan with Lifeguards Jack and Liam


  • Lifeboat crews have launched 1,337 times, helped 706 people and saved 94 lives over the Christmas period (in the last 49 years of recorded launches). 
  • Tower Lifeboat Station has had the highest number of shouts over the Christmas period. 
  • Aith is the closest RNLI lifeboat station to the North Pole. Thankfully, the crew have not had to rescue Father Christmas – yet!

We are so proud of our lifesaving volunteers. Can you help them save every one this Christmas?