Scotland’s coastal deaths up by more than 60 per cent

Lifeboats News Release

Coastal fatality figures 1 released today (9 June) by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) show 39 people lost their lives around Scotland’s coast last year – an increase of 63% on the previous year’s 24 losses.

There were also a number of near-fatal incidents, with the RNLI’s lifeboat crews in Scotland rescuing 953 people and saving 21 lives 2 in 2015.

The figures are released as the charity enters the third year of its national drowning prevention campaign, Respect the Water, which aims to halve accidental coastal deaths by 2024.

The campaign is targeted at adult men, who account for by far the most incidents. Last year saw an increase in the number of men3 losing their lives at the Scottish coast. Between 2011 and 2014, men accounted for over three-quarters (76%) of Scottish coastal deaths but, in 2015, this increased to 92%.

A surprising trend is that many of the coastal deaths each year are people who never planned to enter the water. Of the 39 deaths last year, 79% did not intend to get wet – people taking part in activities such as coastal walking, angling or commercial activity. In fact, walking and running accounted for over one-fifth (21%) of last year’s coastal deaths in Scotland; commercial use of the water accounted for 38% (15), and angling 13% (5). Swimming, jumping in and general leisure use accounted for 10% (4).

The number of deaths due to commercial activity was up markedly due to the tragic loss of eight lives in one incident when the MV Cemfjord foundered in the Pentland Firth in January 2015.

Over the past five years, 173 lives have been lost around the coast of Scotland – an average of 35 each year. The RNLI is aiming to halve the number of coastal deaths by 2024 and is this year renewing its warning to people about the dangers of cold water, slips and falls, rip currents and waves.

Mike Garfitt, one of Scotland's Community Incident Reduction Managers, says:

‘People need to treat the water with respect – it’s powerful and unpredictable. Each year RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards save hundreds of lives but, sadly, not everyone can be saved. We lose an average of 35 lives around Scotland’s coasts each year and the real tragedy of the situation is that many of these deaths could have been prevented.

‘Cold water is a real killer. People often don’t realise how cold our seas can be – even in summer months the sea temperature rarely exceeds 12oc, which is low enough to trigger cold water shock. If you enter the water suddenly at that temperature, you’ll start gasping uncontrollably, which can draw water into your lungs and cause drowning. The coldness also numbs you, leaving you helpless – unable to swim or shout for help.

‘The fact that 79% of the people who died at the coast last year never planned to enter the water suggests people are also not taking enough care along the coastline itself. We’re warning people to stay away from cliff edges, particularly where there is slippery, unstable or uneven ground; stick to marked paths and keep an eye on the water – watch out for unexpected waves which can catch you out and sweep you into the water.

‘The loss of eight lives in the Cemfjord incident is a great tragedy. Our campaign, however, is targeted at the individuals who are heading to the coast and can take more personal responsibility for their own safety – they should find out about the hazards, know what to do should they get into difficulty, and know what to do should they see someone else in danger.’

UK-wide, the number of lives lost at the coast reached a five-year high last year, with 168 lives lost. The Respect the Water campaign will run throughout the summer on channels including cinema, outdoor, radio, online, and, for the first time, on catch-up TV channels.

The charity is asking people to visit where they will find information on how to stay safe.

1 Records from the National Water Safety Forum’s Water Incident Database (WAID) 2011–2015. RNLI has analysed the data using GIS software to plot and analyse incidents before inclusion in a specific coastal dataset (accident and natural causes only).
2 RNLI incident data 2015 – exclude call-outs to self-harm incidents. 
3 All males except for those known to be under 18. Includes those where age was not recorded.


RNLI lifeguards in Scotland and Maddy Jennings, white water slalom kayaker for Scotland and Great Britain offer some safety advice to water users for the launch of this year’s Respect the Water campaign.

An average of 7 kayakers lose their lives each year, with hundreds more being rescued by the RNLI’s lifeboat crews.

The RNLI wants to encourage kayakers to carry a means of calling for help (such as mobile phone in a waterproof bag, or VHF radio) and, most importantly, to keep it on them at all times, so if they capsize, they can call for help. Of all the kayaking deaths between 2010–2013, not one of the casualties was able to call for help.

Notes to Editors
• Provisional coastal fatality data taken from the National Water Safety Forum’s Water Incident Database (WAID) 2011–2015. The figures quoted are for water-related fatalities from accidents and natural causes in UK tidal waters. The fatality figures for Scotland for 2011–2015 are 33, 38, 39, 24 and 39.
• Mike Garfitt is available for interview. Please contact RNLI Public Relations on the numbers below to arrange interviews.

RNLI media contacts

Henry Weaver, RNLI Press Officer Scotland, on 07771 943026 /

Richard Smith, RNLI Public Relations Manager Scotland, on 07786 668903 /

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates over 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and, in a normal year, more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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