Unsung heroes: Water safety volunteers John and Peter

Legendary singer Prince told us all to party like it was 1999 – just in case the world ended that year. Thankfully, it didn’t. And good job too because the new Millennium paved the way for two other legends born out of 1999 – RNLI water safety volunteers John McKenna and Peter Bullick.

RNLI water safety volunteers John McKenna and Peter Bullick holding their RNLI Long Service Medals

RNLI/Tara Murphy, Mark Johnston

John (left) and Peter (right) proudly holding their RNLI Long Service Medals

In 2020, John (73) and Peter (76) did celebrate like it was 1999 – they each reached their own milestone: 21 years of volunteering for the RNLI and saving lives at sea. 

That’s 21 years – and counting – of their own precious lives that they have selflessly dedicated, of their own free will, to keeping people like you and your loved ones safe in, on and around the water. Why? Because they care, just like you.

They are lifesavers just as much as our volunteer lifeboat crews who pull people from the water. And just as much as you, our supporters, who power everything we do. We will always need to be there to rescue those who get into trouble in the water. But we can’t depend on rescue alone. That’s where water safety volunteers like John and Peter come in.

John is a Community Safety Officer at Howth Lifeboat Station and Peter is a Community Safety Adviser at Bangor Lifeboat Station. But what exactly do they do? What inspired them to volunteer for the RNLI in the first place? And why are they still doing it 21 years later? We caught up with them to find out.

What inspired you to volunteer for the RNLI?

John: I was at sea in a big cargo ship on the night of 9 December 1981 when the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne and her crew perished. It was one hell of a night. We made a collection from all onboard and sent it to Penlee. The tragedy also inspired me to become an Offshore RNLI member

Then 14 years later, on 16 November 1995, I was driving home from Belfast after spending a week on a ferry as senior officer. As I was coming into Howth, I could hear a helicopter. I drove along the harbour and saw the trawler Scarlet Buccaneer being thrown up and down the harbour wall and the lifeboat crew trying to save the fishermen onboard. It was horrendous. There was a full gale blowing. The next day I saw the wreck of the Scarlet Buccaneer in two halves. Thankfully, the lifeboat crew managed to rescue all four fishermen but sadly one died on the way to hospital. I decided there and then that if I ever got a shore job, I would become an RNLI volunteer.  

Peter: I’m a keen sailor. I sailed with my father as a youngster at Bangor and took up power boat racing in my mid-20s. I’m an RYA (Royal Yachting Association) Yachtmaster and was an RYA Advanced Powerboat Instructor with commercial endorsement. I organised most, if not all, RYA shore-based courses at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club for 8 years or so.

I relied on the RNLI on two occasions when I got into trouble at sea. So, when I saw an advert in the local paper for RNLI volunteers with sea safety experience, I applied and got the position of sea safety adviser.

RNLI Community Safety Adviser Peter Bullick with a fellow water safety volunteer at an event

Photo: RNLI/Mark Johnston

Proud to volunteer for the RNLI: Peter with a fellow water safety volunteer at an event

So what exactly do you do? 

John: There are six of us in the Community Safety Team at Howth. We all work together to educate and give free water safety advice to everyone who visits the coast in our local communities, from walkers to sailors. As the Community Safety Officer, I lead and help coordinate the team.

Every lifeboat station has a Community Lifesaving Plan which identifies the most popular water activities within a community so that volunteers like me can give relevant water safety advice to those most at risk. 

I also attend many events, shows and venues all over Ireland to spread the RNLI’s water safety messages. This includes advice about: the importance of wearing lifejackets for pleasure sailors, boaters and anglers; kayaking safety; how to call for help and the different means of communication; how to Float to Live if you get into trouble in the water; how to stay safe at the beach; and other general water safety advice.

Peter: I am the only water safety volunteer at Bangor Lifeboat Station, but I have 30 or so volunteer lifeboat crew and shore crew who support me. In the RNLI, you’re never really alone.

I promote the RNLI’s water safety messages at any given opportunity, particularly safety afloat with sailing and motorboating being popular activities locally. I do this through delivering RNLI presentations, holding Lifejacket Clinics, and giving onboard and shore safety advice. I often speak with boat owners casually whilst walking the marina pontoons. 

I am one of many fundraising volunteers at Bangor and as the Souvenir Secretary, I sell a range of RNLI souvenirs and gifts at local events.

Influencing people’s behaviour is a skilful and powerful art. How does it make you feel knowing that you have the power to save someone’s life?

John: I always remember two people who listened to me at an event. They went away and bought a new lifejacket and PLB (personal locator beacon) each. They came back to show me and to thank me. That felt really great!

As a team, wherever we go, we’re recognised. People come up to us to ask for safety advice. They always go away much more informed about the risks of drowning and how to stay safe. It’s great that people actually listen to what we say.

Peter: I don’t think too much about it. I may not know how many lives I have prevented from being lost. But I do know that way back in 1999, there was in the region of 350 lives lost to drowning in UK and Irish waters every year – that’s nearly one person lost every day. Now it’s around 200 less than that. My time is therefore well spent.

It’s the people I haven’t been talking to who are my priority. I must reach them – they are more at risk.

RNLI Community Safety Officer John McKenna with angler Colm Plunkett who is alive today thanks to his lifejacket

Photo: RNLI/Tara Murphy

Advice can save a life: John with angler Colm Plunkett who is alive today thanks to his lifejacket

Has anyone ever told you that the advice you gave saved their life? 

John: I was explaining to a group of people at a show how screw-in gas bottles in lifejackets can become loose with wear and are a common cause of lifejacket failure. The following year I was at the same event and an angler from that group of people came up to me. He told me how he’d checked the gas bottle in his lifejacket when he’d got home and, sure enough, found it was loose, meaning his lifejacket wouldn’t inflate. He replaced the gas bottle and just a few months later, he ended up in the water. Thankfully, his lifejacket inflated and he was rescued. But had he not checked the gas bottle after speaking to me, there might have been a very different outcome.

Peter: I’ve been told on many occasions that my advice has helped to prevent people from losing their life. Particularly after I’ve advised them that the lifejacket they’ve been using for many years has a fault and so will not inflate. 

How do you deal with people who don’t want to listen or change what they do?

John: I use the 7-year rule as a starting platform. It’s an Irish civil law which states that someone must be declared a missing person for 7 years before being declared dead and before any bereavement payments can be made to their next of kin. The law has since been updated and next of kin can now apply for a Presumption of Death Order, the success of which is not guaranteed. So, it is still far safer and cheaper to buy and wear a lifejacket. 

When this is explained to them, especially when they have a partner with them, they usually listen. And then the partner will start to ask questions on wearing a lifejacket and having a means for calling for help. That’s enough to start the ball rolling. Usually they say that they’ve never thought of it that way.

RNLI Community Safety Adviser Peter Bullick giving vital water safety advice to visitors at an event

Photo: RNLI/Mark Johnston

Peter reaches all kinds of people with water safety advice that may one day save their life

What’s the best thing about being an RNLI water safety volunteer?

John: Meeting people and talking to them about water safety, especially young people. Also working with the Coast Guard and Police.

Peter: Being proud about being an RNLI volunteer and wearing and promoting the charity’s name.

And the worst?

John: I would say there is no worst part of the role. It’s what you make it.

Peter: Standing out in the rain collecting with the bucket holding more water than money!

What is your fondest memory so far of being an RNLI water safety volunteer?

John: Going to all the boat and angling shows and being recognised by a lot of people for what I and my team do for them.

Peter: Making new friends every day.

How will you celebrate your 21st anniversary as an RNLI water safety volunteer?

John: Unfortunately, there have been no celebrations yet due to COVID-19. But I understand the RNLI are hoping to mark the anniversary, and that of many other long-serving volunteers, in some way.

Peter: Hopefully being able to shake many hands at some point once the pandemic is over.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not volunteering for the RNLI? 

John: I’m a volunteer bus driver for a special needs children's school and also a volunteer driver for the Irish Cancer Society. I bring patients from their homes to hospital for treatment and take them back home again. It helps to take some of the stress out of what is a very emotional experience for them.

Peter: Cruising on my boat to the west coast of Scotland as far as St Kilda, Stornaway and the Orkney Islands.

What would you say to someone considering becoming an RNLI volunteer? What’s in it for them?

John: Volunteering for the RNLI is a great opportunity. I would advise anybody who’s thinking about it to go to their nearest lifeboat station and enquire about volunteering, whether at sea or ashore. You can give as much or as little of your time as you like – it all helps to save lives at sea. I give an average of 2 hours a week when worked out over the year. We all have a good laugh too!

Peter: Just do it! You will enjoy it. Volunteering for the RNLI – the charity that saves lives at sea – is one of the most rewarding types of volunteering you will ever do. 

Got some spare time? 

We’ll never know how many lives John and Peter have saved through their drowning prevention work over the years. But we do know that one person lost to drowning is one too many. And that’s why, as one crew, we strive to save every one.

Every RNLI volunteer, regardless of their role, does their bit to help save lives at sea by giving as much or as little time as they can. If you’ve got some time to spare and want to put it to good use, we’d love to hear from you. Being a water safety volunteer is just one of the many RNLI volunteering roles available. Or if you’d rather not commit to a role, see the quick ways you can still help to save lives at sea.