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How to talk like a coxswain

Pull on your yellows, fire up the daughter boat and make best speed to the casualty. Here’s your guide to talking like an RNLI coxswain.

A photograph from the 1950s showing Lifeboat Mechanic Hodder from Plymouth RNLI using communication equipment aboard the lifeboat

Photo: RNLI

Get the lowdown on talking like an RNLI coxswain

Meet your expert

First, we delved into the archives for inspiration. As one rather romanticised 1919 Lifeboat article puts it, coxswains are traditionally people of few words:

‘Not words, brave old soul, but deeds; deeds which have surely spoken with as much eloquence to the hearts of those who know than all the oratory of the world.’

Thankfully in 2023, Allan Lipp is happy to stop for a chat – or a ‘good blether’. Allan started volunteering as crew in 1996 at Invergordon, where his dad was coxswain. After working as a fleet staff coxswain supporting crews around our coasts, Allan joined Wick full-time in 2020.

Wick RNLI Coxswain Allan Lipp

Photo: RNLI/John Taylor

Here's Coxswain Allan Lipp to tell us more

Be nautical – but nice

As on all ships, familiar concepts on land have different names on a lifeboat. (Something to ponder if you’re reading this in the heads.) Ropes can be ‘lines’ or ‘cables’, left is ‘port’ and right is ‘starboard’. Nautical terms keep people safe when you need to call things out in a hurry. But there’s no snobbery about which term you use, so long as it’s clear. 

Today only 10% of our volunteer crew members are from a maritime background, so the training you support helps everyone learn the ropes.

Three crew members from Clifden RNLI aboard their Shannon class lifeboat. One of the crew members is using a VHF radio.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

When it comes to radio comms, you need to be quick and clear

FYI at the RNLI we love a TLA

Everyone in the SAR (search and rescue) family loves a TLA (three-letter acronym). They help us share information precisely and quickly. There’s a sense of community in having a shared language, too. Here are some you may hear over the VHF radio:

  • MOB – man overboard.
  • CSP – commence search position, a location given to a lifeboat crew by the coastguard coordinating the search.
  • ALB – all-weather lifeboat, the big orange craft coming to your rescue.
  • ILB – inshore lifeboat, the smaller but equally punchy orange craft coming to your rescue.

There are plenty more, but maybe that’s TMI.

Four crew members from Achill Island aboard their Trent class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

What would your crew nickname be?

Know your crew

Some stations are full of affectionate nicknames, a big part of crew camaraderie. They’re also helpful when giving instructions during a shout and three of your crew are called Sarah.

Some origins are obvious (Tiny is always the tallest on the crew), others take on rhyming-slang levels of backstory. At Tobermory, Second Mechanic Creon is known as ‘Baz’. Short for Basil Fawlty. He used to own a hotel… What would you name your crew?

Get good at describing the weather

Not something most of us need to practise – it’s a national sport. But when updating the coastguard on the radio, they’ll want to know the conditions. For many crews around the UK and Ireland, this includes some distinctive regional variants that instantly describe their local sea state.

Two crew members from Ballyglass RNLI on their Severn class lifeboat, wearing their hoods up to protect against the weather and sea spray

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The hoods are up - things might be getting a wee bit jabbly

Perfect the art of understatement

Chat with any lifeboat volunteer, and they’ll play down the brave and selfless rescues they carry out. For them, they’re ‘just doing the job’. It all comes back to ordinary people doing extraordinary things – powered by your support.

To truly sound like a coxswain, try a bit of heroic understatement when the heat is on:

  • ‘It was a slightly tricky one’ – my team and I have used every ounce of our training, skill and 6,000 mugs of coffee to complete this task.
  • ‘Conditions were a bit lively’ – half our shed has blown away and I’m pretty sure next door’s cat was airborne.

Make yourself heard

Lifeboat rescues are noisy business. You need to be heard over the roar of engines, wind and waves. Back in the day, left and right were handily called ‘larboard’ and ‘starboard’ – try hearing the difference in the teeth of a gale. So each bank of lifeboat oars was painted white or blue. Shouts of ‘pull on the blues’ or ‘pull on the whites’ would help the coxswain guide his crew.

Today, hand signals help. For example, crossed arms over your head communicate you’ve tied a rope fast – something to try in the garden when you’ve finally lashed the trampoline down in a force 8 gale.

A crew member signals from the bow of a lifeboat during a man overboard training exercise

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

When in doubt, add hand signals

Speak calmly under pressure

For many of the people we rescue, they’re having the worst day of their lives. It’s the coxswain’s role to stay calm and clear in their communication to help turn the situation around. If you try this approach, you’ll notice it steadily reassures everyone around you.

Be a radio star

Coastguard, rescue helicopter crews, fellow lifeboats… the coxswain and their crew talk to a lot of people over the radio. Radio comms are all about being heard, being clear and being brief, Allan says. On a radio call, you repeat your callsign and the sign of the person you want to talk to, to make sure they get your message.

Try infusing your day-to-day chat with a sense of coxswainly command:

  • ‘All family, all family, this is Dad, this is Dad. That’s Delta-Alpha-Delta. I’m heading out to get some crisps. Anyone want something from the shop? Over.’
A crew member inside the wheelhouse of Skegness’s Shannon class lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

We hope you've enjoyed our article. Out.

End on a good note

The correct way to end a radio conversation is with ‘out’, never ‘over and out’ as every action film would have you believe. Thanks, Hollywood.

And when a lifeboat crew returns safely to station and the lifeboat’s home and dry, they’ll make one final call to the coastguard: ‘Refuelled, ready for service and closed down.’

We think that’s a fitting end to any good story.

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