20 skills of RNLI lifeguards

Many of us rely on lifeguards to keep our families safe at the seaside. Today, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the service, we highlight 20 skills of our trusty lifeguards.

Lifeguard Hannah Fieldhouse patrolling onboard a rescue watercraft (RWC) at Boscombe beach in Dorset

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

1. Fit 

Ever tried running on sand? Or swimming through surf? Our lifeguards adhere to rigorous fitness standards, including being able to complete: 

  • a 400m pool swim in under 7½ minutes 
  • a 25m pool swim underwater and a 25m surface swim consecutively in under 50 seconds
  • a 200m beach run in under 40 seconds. 

2. Vigilant

Lifeguards are always on high alert, anticipating trouble. Prevention is key – lifeguards will tell you that a good lifeguard hardly ever gets wet. They spot dangers like rip currents, changes in the state of the tide and the weather. But they also people watch to pre-empt trouble. 

3. Local knowledge 

Every beach is different – from the Forth of Firth estuary to secluded coves in Cornwall. Our best lifeguards come from their local beaches, which they know like the back of their hands.

Lifeguard Jade Skilton monitoring the beach using a pair of binoculars at Sandbanks in Poole

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

4. Highly trained 

To be an RNLI lifeguard you need to have an internationally recognised beach lifeguard qualification. And RNLI training is world class. All lifeguards are trained in how to use their lifesaving kit: rescue boards, rescue tubes, first aid kits, defibrillators, radios and other essential lifesaving equipment. Some lifeguards have specialist training for inshore rescue boats, rescue watercraft and four-wheel-drive vehicles. 

5. First aiders (and more!)

Lifeguards deal with a lot of minor first aid incidents – cuts and bruises, stubbed toes and weeverfish stings. They also have more advanced first aid skills for when things go badly wrong. They’re qualified in casualty care – that’s high level first aid using specialist equipment and basic paramedical drugs. Last August one team at Botany Bay, Kent, saved the life of a 6-year-old girl. She had a seizure in the water. Working alongside a GP, the team used CPR and coordinated the ambulance response.

6. Ready for anything 

Every day is different for RNLI lifeguards. There are some things you can’t train for. Our first lifeguards learned this early on, during the lifeguard pilot in 2001, when an unexploded bomb was located and identified by RNLI lifeguards in Whitsand Bay, Cornwall. 

7. Calm under pressure 

Can you keep cool in a crisis? Imagine being on a long-haul plane flight when the woman next to you passes out. Then the plane hits severe turbulence and goes into a nosedive. Kirstin Prisk was 7 hours into a flight from London to New York when this happened. Kirstin remembers: ‘It was full on. Some of the other passengers were screaming but my training and experience as an RNLI lifeguard paid off and I was able to keep calm and focus on the casualty.’ Eventually the woman began to come round and the plane reached New York. 

Alex Bryant, RNLI lifeguard from Littlehampton

Photo: RNLI/Anna Burn

8. Communicators 

Lifeguards are approachable and able to give authoritative water safety advice to the public, without preaching. It’s about tone, body language and communicating clearly with a wide range of people to help them enjoy their day at the beach. 

9. Class act 

Facing a lively class of 30+ children demands a different sort of bravery. In 2019 lifeguards spread beach and water safety messages to more than 146,000 children, in school and on the beach. 

10. Good sense of humour 

Lifeguards have seen and heard it all. They’re teased by merry stag parties and badgered by tourists for photos. ‘I’ve even had people complaining about the noise the seagulls make,’ recalls Brett Shepherd, Lifeguards Operations Manager. Lifeguards have to maintain their sense of humour and stay professional.

11. Unicorn catching

Our lifeguards often have to deal with inflatables floating out to sea – unicorns, donuts, flamingos, you name it! Inflatables are designed for pools, not open water, and it takes very little breeze for them to be swept out. Make sure you stay safe with our beach safety tips. Our lifeguards don't just rescue unicorns – they've also helped deer, seals, a terrapin and a water-logged puffin. 

12. Shark spotting

 It’s rare, but nature-loving lifeguards have been known to spot sharks. However, our lifesavers are more interested in raising awareness of the everyday dangers at the coast, like rip currents, tides and inflatables. And any sharks swimming off the UK and Ireland are extremely unlikely to be a danger to anyone. 
Lifeguard Hannah Fieldhouse patrolling onboard a rescue watercraft (RWC) at Boscombe beach in Dorset

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

13. Brave 

To date, four lifeguards have received RNLI Medals for Gallantry. Lifeguard Rod MacDonald was first, awarded a Bronze Medal for acting instinctively and bravely to save a swimmer’s life in October 2002. Rod clambered down rocks to a gully at Fistral Beach, Newquay, and battled through the surf to reach swimmer Paul, who was unconscious from being thrown against the rocks by strong waves. Rod brought him to shore and gave him first aid until an air ambulance arrived. 

Sophie Grant-Crookston swam 30m through churning seas, surrounded by rocks in her Bronze medal-winning rescue, September 2006. With great strength and bravery, Sophie saved a surfer who was in trouble off Perranporth Beach, Cornwall. 

In 2009 John Dugard and Chris Boundy became the first lifeguards to be honoured with Silver Medals for Gallantry in 2009. They risked their own lives off Trebarwith Strand, Cornwall, to rescue an angler from a turbulent pool known locally as the Washing Machine. 

The bravery and skill of lifeguards is also recognised each year by the Alison Saunders Lifeguarding Award, sponsored by the retired RNLI Deputy Chair Alison Saunders MBE. 

14. Teamworking 

‘Teamwork makes the dream work,’ says Brett. ‘It’s cheesy but it’s true. It’s vital that lifeguards understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly when putting their lives on the line. And it’s also important when working with the lifeboat crew, coastguard, paramedics and other teams.’ 

Together, lifeboats and lifeguards make a strong team on the frontline. And our lifesavers couldn’t save lives without your support. Plus there’s the team behind the scenes. Months before the lifeguards patrol the beaches, there’s work done to recruit and train lifeguards and to ready their kit. And during the season there’s maintenance of kit, administrative support, data inputting and more. 

15. Dedicated 

Around 75% of lifeguards return each season. Team spirit, a passion for working outdoors and a dedication to saving lives at sea keep lifeguards coming back. 

Lifeguards on Weymouth beach, Dorset

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

16. Ambitious 

‘I’ve seen lifeguarding change from being a summer job you do while you’re at uni, through to being a sound career move,’ says Brett. Lifeguards with potential are trained to become senior lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors. Lifeguarding opens plenty of doors for professional development – no matter what career you aspire to. After 20 years of providing a lifeguard service, the RNLI now has ex-lifeguards working in most departments at most levels. 

17. Beyond the call of duty 

‘A lifeguard’s never really off duty,’ reflects Brett. ‘Lifeguards aren’t going to stand by and watch, when they could act to save a life.’ 

Many RNLI lifeguards come from a volunteering background where they learn their trade through their lifesaving club. They learn their trade through the clubs like the Surf Life Saving Association and the Royal Life Saving Society. 

Lifeguard Lauren Cooke even saved a life when she was on holiday. During a meal in a restaurant in Crete, a baby at a nearby table started choking. Thanks to her training, Lauren knew exactly what to do. Five slaps to the back and one chest thrust dislodged the food from the baby’s windpipe and he started breathing again. 

18. If it’s raining, you’re training 

Rain is part and parcel of lifeguarding in the UK. But lifeguards don’t let rain prevent them from keeping fit and training – the beach and the water are their gym on the quieter days. 

RNLI lifeguards on Hastings Beach

Photo: RNLI/KT Bruce

19. Flexible 

Thanks to a huge effort at the start of the pandemic last year, lifeguards patrolled 177 beaches. Lifeguards adapted quickly to new PPE and new ways of working, to keep themselves and the public safe. Beaches were busy and this year is challenging too, with lifeguards set to patrol over 240 beaches. 

20. Sharing their skills 

Lifeguards are willing to learn from others and share their expertise too. In the first few years of RNLI lifeguarding, some lifeguards took part in a successful Lifeguard Exchange programme. And lifeguards have shared their skills with lifesaving organisations overseas in our effort to tackle the global drowning problem. For example, since 2012 we’ve been working with SeaSafe, a CIPRB initiative in Bangladesh, to build a lifeguarding and community safety service for the beaches at Cox’s Bazar.

Think you've got what it takes?

If you fancy a career on the beach, or know somebody who might, apply to become a lifeguard today.