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Two RNLI lifeguards sitting on top of a Ford Ranger at Fistral Beach, looking out to sea

5 things you wanted to know about lifeguards (but were too afraid to ask)

Photo: Dean Wright

A quick guide to life on the beach as an RNLI lifeguard. 

What do RNLI lifeguards do?

Every year, RNLI lifeguards patrol hundreds of some of the UK’s busiest beaches. They are there to help people enjoy the coast safely. They take millions of preventative actions and respond quickly when somebody needs their help.

A good lifeguard rarely gets wet – 95% of a lifeguard's work is preventative. This includes everything from monitoring sea conditions to setting up warning flags, from spotting dangers before they happen to offering safety advice both on the beach and in classrooms through our education programmes.

Lifeguard Emily Fazakarley talks to two women on the beach while gesturing with her hand

Photo: RNLI/Charis Walker

RNLI Lifeguard Emily Fazakarley offering safety advice on the beach

Where do I find them?

RNLI lifeguards patrol over 240 beaches in the UK and the Channel Islands.

The lifeguarding season varies depending on where you are. A few beaches are patrolled from the Easter school holidays, with the number increasing through the season until the peak school summer holidays. Our service stops on most beaches in September, but some continue into the October half term holidays.

Visiting a lifeguarded beach is the best way to keep you and your loved ones safe - and it’s easy to find one where you are.

Find your nearest beach

When they don’t have eyes on the beach, lifeguards are active in the local community – for example, visiting local schools as part of our Meet the Lifeguards programme. Or teaching children about beach safety in partnership with swimming instructors from Swim England.

A Swim Safe session in progress at Scarborough’s North Bay with RNLI lifeguard and Swim England swimming instructors

Photo: Toni Carr

Swim Safe session at Scarborough’s North Bay

Are RNLI lifeguards paid?

Yes. Most RNLI lifeguards are seasonal staff, paid by the relevant local authority to maintain patrols on our busiest beaches, but we also have volunteer lifeguards too.

Our lifeguard support volunteers help lifeguards with duties on land, such as lookout, radio communications and casualty care. 

Lifeboat crews are different – most of them are volunteers. Paid or unpaid, RNLI lifeguards and lifeboat crews work and train, sometimes together, to save every one they can.

Senior lifeguard Nick Ellison in red RNLI fleece top and cap standing next to red and yellow flag, looking out to sea

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Senior Lifeguard Nick Ellison keeping watch on La Braye Beach, Jersey

What training can lifeguards expect?

You’ll not be surprised to learn it takes a lot of training to turn ordinary people into extraordinary RNLI lifesavers.

Most of a lifeguard’s training takes place on the beach, but there’s also an extensive lifeguard training programme run by RNLI College in Poole, Dorset. This includes a range of RNLI-accredited courses on learning to be a lifeguard and operating lifesaving equipment like rescue boards and tubes.

Depending on the beach they’re working on, this might also include inshore rescue boats, rescue watercraft, and all-terrain and 4x4 vehicles.

A joint training exercise between lifeguards and lifeboat crew at Whitesands, Pembrokeshire

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

A joint training exercise between lifeguards and lifeboat crew at Whitesands, Pembrokeshire

More experienced lifeguards are hands-on with the training, passing on their skills to the new recruits. The RNLI supports those with potential, giving them the management skills they need to become senior lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors.

The skills RNLI lifeguards learn can last a lifetime and this can be a real asset to the local community too. Lifeguards sometimes find themselves helping the public after hours and out of season.

RNLI Lifeguard Jess Collins runs into the sea with a rescue board

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

RNLI Lifeguard Jess Collins running into the sea

How do you become a lifeguard?

If you're wondering 'can anyone become a lifeguard?', RNLI lifeguards need to:

  • be over 16 and of school leaving age (with the permission of a parent/guardian, if you're under 18)
  • have a National Vocational Beach Lifeguard Qualification (NVBLQ) or equivalent or ILS Beach/Surf Lifeguard qualification or equivalent
  • be able to complete a 400m pool swim in under 7½ minutes, the first 200m of which must be completed in under 3½ minutes
  • be able to run 200m on the beach in under 40 seconds.

'When I first looked at the fitness requirements, I thought there was no way that I could do the swim test,' says RNLI Senior Marketing Manager and former Lifeguard David Crossland. 'It’s actually quite easy when you’re a competent swimmer, but at first it took me 9 or 10 minutes!'

‘You don’t have to have a stereotypical swimmer’s body,’ he adds. ‘Swimmers are all shapes and sizes. Anyone can do the job as long as they are relatively fit and able to pass the selection tests.'

David and his fellow lifeguards take part in their lifeguard challenge, running across the sand and swimming in the sea

Photo: Cesar Mateus

David and his fellow lifeguards take part in a lifeguard challenge

Take the plunge

Lifeguarding could be a great career choice for you, or someone you know. You’ll get lots of training opportunities and transferrable skills which could lead to other exciting roles!

Now you know the facts, it’s time to act. Lifeguarding could be a great way to kickstart your career in 2024.

Become a lifeguard