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From deep end to front line: how new recruits prepare for shouts

Newly qualified lifeboat crew members from around the coast experienced their first rescues this summer as thousands headed to the seaside. But what does it take to get ready for that life-changing moment?

Six trainee crew members, in all-weather crew kit, are in the water at the RNLI’s sea survival pool, holding onto an orange lifering

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

There’s a mix of nerves and excitement in the damp air as the crew trainer’s voice echoes across the water: ‘Throw it in! That’s it!’

St Helier lifeboat volunteer Katie Campbell, visiting from Jersey, hurls what looks like a large white box into the pool, and a fellow trainee yanks the attached rope. With a hiss, the box transforms into an inflatable liferaft, bobbing along on the surface of the water. Soon the wave machine will be switched on, the lights turned off, and volunteers will attempt to scramble into the liferaft amidst dark, churning waters. This is the climax of the Crew Emergency Procedures course at the RNLI College’s sea survival pool: the safety training that lifeboat volunteers aim to complete before launching on their first rescue. 

Five crew members and their trainer float in the water, getting ready to climb into the orange inflatable liferaft

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The Crew Emergency Procedures course ends with the crew jumping into the water and climbing into a liferaft

‘The facilities are awesome,’ says Katie, who is visiting the training college here in Dorset, alongside other crew members from Merseyside, Devon, Glamorgan, Kent, London and the Channel Islands. It’s a crucial chapter in a long training journey, which has taken them from willing volunteers to fully competent lifesavers. And although they’ll be jumping from height into the water today, no volunteers are thrown in at the deep end when they first join up.

St Helier RNLI Crew Member Katie Campbell wears a yellow lifejacket over her all-weather crew kit and stands in front of the RNLI College’s sea survival pool, grinning at the camera

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Member Katie Campbell from St Helier RNLI

Getting to grips with their kit and craft

Most training takes place back at the lifeboat stations and begins with new volunteers getting to know their kit and lifeboat inside out. ‘The RNLI won’t send you out to sea if you don’t understand your PPE [Personal Protective Equipment],’ explains Lifeboat Trainer Will King. ‘The crews who come here for the Emergency Procedures course are already familiar with their gear.’ From helmets and boots to lifejackets and drysuits, it’s all designed to keep volunteers safe, dry, warm, afloat and visible. And it’s funded by people like you.

RNLI Trainer Will King stands in front of the RNLI College’s sea survival pool, looking straight ahead into the camera

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

RNLI Trainer Will King

But all that kit is no good if it’s not used or looked after properly – so the very first bit of station-based training that new crew members face is learning how to check their PPE, maintain it, store it, and wear it. It’s not as simple as it sounds, especially when it comes to the lifejacket. Used correctly, it’s a lifesaver, but can they manually inflate one if needed? Do they know how to check the CO2 canister? Can they find the whistle and operate the light so that others know where they are? What about using the spray hood to keep water out of their mouth, nose and eyes? After getting to grips with all that, trainees then need to step out of the station kit room and get familiar with their craft.

The SAR Unit Layout assessment is more than just knowing your port from your starboard. Before going afloat, new crew members need to know how to find and use the lifeboat’s fittings and equipment safely and quickly. Depending on the type of lifeboat, it can include demonstrating where the fire flaps are, which could seal off ventilation in a blaze, or where the anchor is stowed, and knowing what the fairleads are (fittings used to guide a line in a particular direction without chafing the rope).   

Porthcawl RNLI Crew Member Gareth Jenkins, wearing a yellow lifejacket, just after leaving the RNLI’s sea survival pool

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams 

Crew Member Gareth Jenkins from Porthcawl RNLI

Going afloat

After being assessed on their knowledge of their kit and craft, trainees are ready to go afloat on exercises, and will also build their search and rescue skills through theory-based courses such as navigation and casualty care. That kind of training would normally take place in a lifeboat station, but for the Porthcawl trainees joining in a pandemic, it was a bit different. ‘When we first started, the Covid lockdown measures were in full swing,’ recalls Gareth Jenkins, who works in car sales when not volunteering for the crew. ‘But we had a really proactive instructor at the station, who set up Zoom calls twice a week to talk us through how tidal flows behave, chartwork and so on.’ 

Fellow Porthcawl trainee crew member Ken York nods with a grin, adding: ‘We were very eager to learn – we couldn’t get the info into our brains fast enough! It’s so professional and structured – I work as an engineer for a major airline, and it’s a similarly high standard of process and procedure.’ 

Porthcawl RNLI Crew Member Ken York, wearing RNLI crew kit and smiling

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Member Ken York from Porthcawl RNLI

Like Ken and Gareth, Katie from St Helier hasn’t got a professional maritime background – although the casualty care training has been familiar territory for her. ‘I am a paramedic in Jersey, so bringing that medical background onto the lifeboat is really cool. I wanted to use those skills in a different environment. I’m a novice on the seagoing stuff, but if there are casualty care questions the crew will often come to me!’

Giving medical care to sick and injured casualties in a sea rescue scenario can be very different to land-based environments. And, unlike Katie, most lifeboat volunteers have little medical experience. The RNLI’s casualty care training is all about hands-on treatment rather than complex theory or diagnosis. Crews are trained to use specially created treatment check cards to help treat people beside the water, on it, or even in it.

Knowing your lifeboat layout, kit and first-aid skills is essential, but you have to be able to reach the scene of rescue too. So another key piece in the puzzle for new recruits is the training that helps them operate their search and rescue craft – from knot-tying and chartwork to boat handling and radio communications. Some of that was familiar territory for trainee Tanya Harding. ‘I’m an RYA [Royal Yachting Association] instructor and open water swimmer, so I love the sea and had heard a lot about the RNLI – I wanted to get involved! 

‘My day job means I know a bit about navigation, comms and ropework. But in a search and rescue environment it all dials up a bit. Regardless of whether you have done it before or not, everyone is brought up to the same standard.’ 

Dover RNLI Crew Member Tanya Harding smiles at the camera after taking part in the Emergency Procedures course

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Member Tanya Harding from Dover RNLI

Gathering local knowledge

One thing that can’t be taught by College instructors is the unique local hazards that every crew faces back home on a lifeboat launch – or hovercraft launch in some cases. ‘Like most crew members, I have lived by the sea for a while and know a certain amount about it,’ says Hoylake Crew Member Kev Latcham, who works for an oil company. ‘But when you join up, someone at the station takes you aside and you really start to get the local knowledge. It makes you look at your stretch of coast with a different mindset. We’re at the mouth of two major estuaries - the Dee and the Mersey - so there’s a hell of a lot of shifting sands, mud, and a high tidal range. That’s why we have a hovercraft as well as a Shannon class lifeboat. So I’m looking forward to completing my hovercraft training too.’

Hoylake RNLI Crew Member Kev Latcham stands in front of RNLI College’s sea survival pool

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Crew Member Kev Latcham from Hoylake RNLI

Ready for anything

The Emergency Procedures course is almost finished, and Trainer Will King watches with pride as the crew members rehearse what to do should the worst happen at sea. After jumping into the pool from height, their lifejackets inflate and they gather in the growing waves. They scull in formation towards the inverted liferaft and Katie grabs a strap to help bring it the right way up. The volunteers help each other inside, shutting the flaps and preparing for a queasy ride. In the darkness, only the little lights inside the rafts can be seen, rising and falling, silhouetting the crew members crammed within. Eventually the waves die down and the lights return – the exercise is over, and so is the course.

Watch the video below to see the crew weathering the simulated storm in inflatable liferafts:

‘Everyone told me the liferaft would be the highlight! I was a bit apprehensive about how it was going to be when they turned the lights off and the waves on – but it was a brilliant experience,’ says a relieved Katie as she empties a boot full of water. It’s been quite a few days for the volunteers, who return to their stations feeling more prepared than ever for that moment when the pager sounds – thanks to the caring people who fund their kit and training.