New stats reveal south west RNLI volunteers are busier than ever over Christmas

Lifeboats News Release

As Christmas approaches, the RNLI is issuing its own call for help as new figures show that the charity’s volunteer lifeboat crews in the south west* are more than 500% busier over the festive period compared with 40 years ago.

The charity is facing a ‘Perfect Storm’ with more people than ever needing its help, meaning support from the public is even more vital.

During the festive period** last year, RNLI volunteers in the region launched to the rescue 21 times compared with just four call outs in 1979. During the festive periods dating back from 1979 to 2018, RNLI volunteers in the south west have rescued 255 people and saved 60 lives. Since 2016 they have consistently launched over 21 times over the eight days from Christmas Eve to New Years Day, compared to an average over the 40 years of just 11.

Nationally, the causes of callouts over the festive period have changed over the years. In the early 80s the most common reason was to commercial fishing vessels and powered craft. Since 2000, many of those needing help are often just visiting the coast with slips, trips and falls and tidal cut offs also a contributing factor to RNLI call outs.

To ensure the RNLI can continue its lifesaving work this Christmas and into the future, the charity is running a major fundraising appeal, The Perfect Storm, with the aim of raising £1.8M and recruiting 12,000 new supporters.

While many people will be thinking about presents, turkey and time with the family, dedicated RNLI volunteers from the 28 lifeboat stations across the south west will be ensuring their yellow wellies and lifejackets are ready for when the call comes and will be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to save lives at sea.

In many cases, generations of the same family could be forced to abandon their turkey dinner and head to their local lifeboat station when the pager sounds.

Long-serving RNLI volunteer Coxswain Andrew Bengey joined Ilfracombe lifeboat crew in 1978 and has dedicated an incredible 41 years of his life to saving others with the RNLI. Joining him around the Christmas dinner table with their pagers close at hand will be his son Ben and Ben’s girlfriend Sophie Braund, who both, like Andrew, will be ready to respond to the pager.

Andrew and Ben recall one such shout on Christmas Day 2014.

A group of young men had gone to sea in an inflatable dinghy telling one of their party who stayed ashore that they would be back by 3pm. When they had not returned by 3.30pm, he called the Coastguard.

When the pagers went off the crew immediately left their homes and headed to the station. Damian Wilson, who had only recently joined the crew, remembers he’d just finished his Christmas dinner, joking ‘the pager went off, so I got out of the washing up’. Volunteer Helm Mark Weeks recalls he had just started peeling vegetables to cook Christmas dinner for nine people, thankfully he was back in time to eat it. Other members weren’t so lucky and left their Christmas dinner on the table.

Andrew says; ‘Although it was Christmas Day we treated it just like any other shout. Someone out there needed our help and we just wanted to do our job.’

Both the inshore lifeboat and all-weather lifeboat were tasked on the search and the crew spent two hours searching the coastline. The weather conditions were cold and overcast with a slight force 3 wind. By 6.30pm it was dark when a crew member spotted an inflatable dinghy pulled up at the high tide level on the beach at Lee Bay. There was no sign of the occupants. The lifeboat crew contacted the Coastguard who made their way to the beach and found the young men making their way home. It appeared that their engine had broken down, and they had managed to paddle onto the beach and scramble up the cliff. Having made sure everyone was safe the lifeboat returned to the station around 7pm.

Since then Ilfracombe station has had a shout every year across the Christmas period, including Boxing day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Despite being called away from family celebrations, RNLI lifeboat crews are determined to preserve the festive spirit. After being called out to a yacht in difficulty one Christmas Day, resulting in a long tow back to safety, the then St Mary’s Coxswain felt so sorry for the yacht’s crew that he invited them back for Christmas dinner. Kevin Sherris, who has just received his 30-year long service award, was on that shout back in 2000. He says:

‘It was Christmas morning with the family when at about 10am the call came in. The day was clear but windy - about a force 8 gale. It took about 20 mins to get to the sailing yacht in trouble, a husband and wife who had been sailing to the north coast of Cornwall when they got into difficulties. The crew secured a tow line and returned to St Mary's as quickly as possible. As it was Christmas Day the husband and wife had nowhere to go, so the Coxswain felt sorry for them, took them in and gave them Christmas lunch. We made it back about 1pm that afternoon, luckily my family had saved my Christmas dinner which I ate and then fell asleep!’

Phil Woodcock is the station’s Coxswain/Mechanic and has been a part of St Mary’s RNLI for 19 years. Back on New Year’s Eve in 2009 he was part of the crew launched in challenging conditions to the Trevessa IV. The fishing vessel was over 30 miles offshore when it suffered an engine fire. The Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopter and St Mary's RNLI lifeboat volunteers were paged to respond.

Phil remembers: ‘Due to the position of the stricken vessel and the strong northerly wind, the journey was extremely quick to the scene (over 25 knots) with wave surfing on the way. On arrival the fire was out due to the fire system on board the vessel, but we stood by as the vessel's crew were airlifted off and transferred to hospital. The helicopter crew all received medals for the rescue due to the high winds involved. The journey back was not so quick as the lifeboat was battling against the wind and big waves - making for a very uncomfortable two and a half hours back to St Mary's. The fishing boat was recovered the next day by Penlee RNLI in flat calm conditions.

'Although shouts around Christmas time are memorable, for us it's no different to any other day, if someone needs help on the sea we respond.'

Some families will be cherishing Christmas together thanks to the RNLI. Ian Leigh, from Portishead set off for a day’s sail with his father in law, a novice sailor on a bright and calm day in August from Portishead Marina. However, when the weather conditions took a turn for the worst, Ian decided to take down the sails and head back under steam of the engine, from then things went horribly wrong. On starting the outboard engine, it fell off and pulled Ian overboard.

Ian attributes the fact that he was wearing a lifejacket and the quick reaction of the volunteer RNLI crew from Portishead to his survival. He said;

‘Without my lifejacket, it would have been a completely different story, the water was so cold, I wouldn’t have been able to keep afloat. My father in law, who has never set foot in a boat until this point, managed to get me back on board, but without an engine, we were now drifting onto the rocks. I was cold and wet and although the adrenaline was pumping, I was in shock. It doesn’t bear thinking about what would have happened if it wasn’t for the volunteer crew, we can’t thank them enough.’

On receiving the tasking from the Coastguard, the Portishead lifeboat crew launched and locating Ian and the yacht, crew member Jake was transferred to the yacht. Although initially Ian seemed to be doing well, his condition quickly deteriorated and Jack made the decision to transfer Ian to the lifeboat, which took him to shore and a waiting ambulance.

Ian will be spending Christmas with his wife and mother this year. He says: ‘Now a bit of time has passed it’s definitely sunk in how close I was to things being very different. It’s certainly put a different tilt on my life and had a big impact on how I think. I am so thankful for the Portishead RNLI lifeboat volunteers for turning up and saving me. I am planning to fundraise for them, anything I can do for them to buy equipment and kit for now and the future as my way of saying thank you.

‘To think they do this voluntarily is just incomprehensible. Please donate whatever you can to support the Perfect Storm appeal and help the RNLI crews to continue saving lives.’

The RNLI’s Perfect Storm appeal has been launched in response to some major challenges the charity is facing. In 2018, the RNLI’s financial resources dropped by £28.6M, while its crews are busier than ever.

To support the RNLI’s Perfect Storm appeal this Christmas, helping to ensure the charity’s brave volunteers can continue saving lives at sea, please visit

*South West patch covers from Portishead round to Weymouth – taking in the Isles of Scilly

**Festive periods calculated from 24 Dec – 1 Jan

Notes to editors

· Interview opportunities with RNLI crew are available, please contact Amy or Emma on the numbers below

· On average, in the past decade, the RNLI’s lifeboats around the UK and Ireland have launched over 8,000 times each year. In the ’90s they averaged 6,000 launches a year, while in the ’70s it was less than 3,000 launches a year.

· High resolution photos available on request

RNLI media contacts

For more information please contact Amy Caldwell, RNLI Regional Media Manager, on 07920818807 or or Emma Haines, RNLI Regional Media Officer on 07786668847 or the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789 –

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 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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Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.