RNLI trials ingenious “bottle buoy” flotation device in sea off Cromer

Lifeboats News Release

A potentially lifesaving rescue device fashioned from the unlikely source materials of empty plastic bottles will be trialled in the UK for the first time by the RNLI.

The “bottle buoy”, which will be tested in the sea off Cromer tomorrow (Thursday 10 November), is a flotation device consisting of three empty plastic bottles screwed into a central core.

Once the bottles are locked in place, the resulting object is a three pointed star – akin to the popular Mercedes Benz logo - which can be thrown to a casualty in the water to keep them afloat.

The ingeniously simple device is cheap to manufacture and has already piqued the interest of the RNLI’s international team, who subsequently trialled it in the sea in Bangladesh in May. The promising results of those tests led to the RNLI carrying out more vigorous tests on home soil, to ascertain the potential future lifesaving benefits.

Stuart Thompson from the RNLI’s International Development team, explained more about the bottle buoy: ‘It’s one of those ideas that, when you see it, you can’t quite believe how simple it is, or why no-one has thought of it before. It’s a plastic or wooden core which you secure three bottles to. The bottles are empty and sealed, and the air trapped inside gives the device incredible buoyancy – enough to keep a casualty afloat in the water until help can arrive.’

The bottle buoy is the brainchild of Huddersfield student James Benson, who came up with the idea, built a prototype, and entered an International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) competition. The RNLI learned of it, and approached James to see if the bottle buoy could play a part in rescues in low or middle income countries.

Stuart continued: ‘We have links with the IMRF and since learning about the buoy we been working closely with James to assess how easily it could be mass produced. In May we ran some trials with an injury prevention organisation called the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh.This was part of our international work to improve search and rescue capacity in countries with high drowning rates.

‘We found the initial results really encouraging so now we want to put the bottle buoy through its paces a little more. We have tested it in the RNLI Sea Survival Pool at our RNLI headquarters in Dorset, where all of our volunteer lifeboat crew members do their training.

‘In the sea at Cromer we’ll see if it can be reliably thrown over a distance, how far, whether it can keep more than one person afloat, whether it works with a line attached to aid recovery, how it fares in different sea conditions etc.’

The bottle buoy’s original design was recreated by a local carpenter in Bangladesh out of wood, but a plastic version could easily be injection moulded and potentially mass produced for relatively little cost. And any measures which potentially reduce the amount of waste plastic must be a good thing, given that plastic constitutes approximately 90 percent of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface.

Members of the RNLI’s International and Engineering teams will trial the bottle buoy in the sea next to Cromer Pier, from midday until 2pm on Thursday 9 November.

The RNLI’s International programme works with local and national partners to tackle the global drowning epidemic, which kills an estimated 372,000 people every year. As well as interventions and training, we work with countries to help put national water safety strategies in place. See more at RNLI.org/international


Photocall: media are welcome to attend the trial of the bottle buoy for photos/interviews/filming. For more information contact Tim Ash using the contact details below.

RNLI media contacts

  • Tim Ash, RNLI Public Relations Manager (London/East/South East) on 0207 6207426, 07785 296252 tim_ash@rnli.org.uk
  • For enquiries outside normal business hours, contact the RNLI duty press officer on 01202 336789

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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 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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