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An RNLI lifeguard and a water safety volunteer raise a red and yellow beach flag as they conduct a session in a school classroom.

Safety first: How the RNLI uses prevention as the best cure

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

For the RNLI, saving lives doesn’t just take place on the water. Since the early days of our lifesaving service, prevention has been an important part of our work.

Saving lives at sea has always been the driving force behind the RNLI. But you may be surprised to learn that prevention  ways to stop people getting into trouble in the first place  has long been a part of our lifesaving work too.

In an issue of Life-boat Journal from 1855, the editor writes: ‘We may probably indirectly produce some result in that direction by publishing and making more generally known alike the existence of acknowledged evils and imperfections as regards security to life at sea and the means which may be adopted to prevent them.’

This was alongside a section in the journal titled ‘New Inventions’, a feature where ideas for spreading safety and prevention advice were shared. 

This focus on prevention work continued to grow and is now a vital part of the RNLI’s lifesaving service. Here are some of the safety innovations and campaigns we’ve been involved with across our 200 years of saving lives at sea.


One of the earliest safety awareness initiatives by the RNLI was the placement of barometers at some lifeboat stations, starting in 1860. The idea was to alert local fisherfolk and seafarers to any storms on the horizon. 

Left: St Davids Coxswain William Watts Williams discusses the barometer with an American TV crew. Right: Former St Davids Coxswain Malcolm Gray poses beside the device.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

An RNLI barometer in St Davids, Wales

A barometer works by measuring changes in air pressure. A rapid drop in the levels can signify that clouds, rain and strong winds are on the way. While only a short-term forecast, the instrument gave a strong indication of adverse weather approaching.

Harbours of refuge

Another early initiative was to establish harbours of refuge, something championed by the RNLI’s founder, Sir William Hillary. Despite the rich nautical histories of the UK and Ireland, the coasts had a lack of natural harbours in the 1800s. As the waters became busier and collisions between vessels more frequent, a committee was set up to help create harbours of refuge – places where stricken vessels or those in distress could retreat to until help arrived.

The stone parapets and keep of the Tower of Refuge in Douglas, silhouetted by the sunset

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The Tower of Refuge in Douglas at sunset

The committee came together and helped establish harbours of refuge at locations across the UK and Ireland, working with the government at the time to help fund and build their locations.

Sir William paid for one such refuge to be built in Douglas on the Isle of Man. The ‘Tower of Refuge’ was built on a submerged reef, designed to provide shelter from the elements to shipwreck victims while they awaited rescue. Its construction in 1832 cost £250, with Sir William donating £78 of his own money to its cost. 


While today we have access to pools and swimming lessons from an early age, swimming was not a widely learned skill in the 19th century. In an issue of Life-boat Journal from 1877, a question was raised about whether swimming was a skill crews should be required to have.

‘ is a matter of grave question whether much that has been achieved would not have resulted in a larger roll of saved, fewer gallant souls have been lost from among the Life-boat crews, and fewer men torn by the storm from among rescued crews, if only the [Institution] could have ensured that every volunteer who manned its boats knew how to swim.’

While being able to swim never became a requirement for crew members, it shows how the RNLI were looking both to save lives at sea and keep its crews as safe as possible.

Swim Safe

For the past 10 years, the RNLI and Swim England have teamed up to help more than 150,000 young people learn to stay safe when in, on and around open water, through free Swim Safe sessions. These outdoor swimming sessions are led by trained instructors, for children aged 7–14. Swim Safe takes place every summer, from May to September, at coastal and inland locations across the UK. 

Storm Force

Getting the right messages to young people can give them lessons that they’ll use for life. In 1984, Storm Force made its debut. The RNLI’s youth membership magazine, Storm Force uses colourful characters, exciting rescue stories, and all sorts of puzzles and games to inspire a love of the RNLI. 

A young girl sits and reads the 30th anniversary edition of Storm Force magazine on a table covered in puzzles, activities and drawing materials

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Storm Force reader Zoe with the 30th anniversary edition in 2023

But alongside all the fun, important water safety tips are shared too – turning RNLI-loving children into safe adults.

Working with partners

‘The most dangerous part of a boat ... is the skipper.’

This is the headline to a Lifeboat Magazine article from 1990, which detailed the role of the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) in helping to keep people safe. With pleasure craft users being one of the primary reasons behind lifeboat launches, the RNLI’s work with the RYA played an important part in our preventative actions at the time, and continues to help thousands of recreational sailors to stay safe on the water each year.

GAA sports stars stand in the breaking surf alongside lifeboat crew members from Red Bay

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

GAA sports stars and Red Bay crew members pose for a photo in the surf

Strategic partnerships continue to play a key role in getting our safety messages to those who need to hear them. One of the most successful recent campaigns is our partnership with the GAA, Ireland's biggest sporting body. Now in its seventh year, the partnership has allowed the RNLI to get GAA stars to share safety messages – and even had crews in their lifeboat kit attend the All-Ireland Senior Hurling final at Croke Park in 2023.

The Safety at Sea Initiative

1994 saw a milestone for the RNLI with the appointment of the first RNLI Sea Safety Officer – Michael Vlasto. Having already worked for the RNLI for 19 years across a variety of different roles, Michael was an integral part of the Safety at Sea Initiative, which launched a year later in 1995.

Bringing together experts and agencies such as the Coastguard Agency, Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS), the initial aim was to target pleasure boat users to help them stay safe on the water. At the 1995 London International Boat Show, the RNLI’s Safety Guidelines for Recreational Boat Users was launched.

Since then, the water safety team at the RNLI has grown in size and scope, covering everything from sailing and swimming to commercial fishing and paddleboarding. There are now close to a thousand water safety volunteers working in communities around the UK and Ireland, supported by around 1,200 local ambassadors who deliver key safety messages through their businesses.

An RNLI lifeguard in a red sweater, cap and shorts, carries a beach flagpole down the beach towards the waterline

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

An RNLI lifeguard puts a beach flag out at the start of their patrol


In 2001, RNLI lifeguards first started patrolling beaches in the UK and Channel Islands. While they are trained and ready to go to the aid of anyone in difficulty, the vast majority of their work is preventative. 

From putting up beach flags and warning signs to walking along the beach and sharing safety advice, RNLI lifeguards play a massive role in keeping people safe at the seaside each summer.

Float to Live

Launched in 2017, the RNLI’s Float to Live safety campaign is one of the biggest in its history. Underpinned by research conducted by Professor Mike Tipton MBE, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology at Portsmouth University, the campaign focused on teaching people a vitally important lifesaving skill – floating.

Its initial impact was startling, with more than 30 people saying the campaign helped save their life since 2017. This contributed to a steady decline in accidental UK drownings. Since then, this messaging has been refined to ensure that as many people as possible can learn, share and use this simple skill to save themselves from drowning.

You can play a part in the RNLI’s water safety work. You can become a water safety volunteer and help share safety messages to people of all ages. Or you can simply share the safety messages on our Float to Live pages. Help us spread our safety advice – you never know when someone will need to use it.