Stats show big rise in calls to inflatables as lockdown eased in South East

Lifeboats News Release

Volunteer crew members at the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) have faced an unprecedented summer* with new data revealing a dramatic increase in the number of water users needing to be helped by local lifeboat crews compared to 2019.

Photo of the Poole lifeboat with inflatable lollipop on board.


The Poole lifeboat rescued a seven year old girl clinging onto this inflatable lollipop.

Based on provisional incident reports** from RNLI lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, there was a 64% increase in the number of recreational water users aided by the RNLI. Additionally, many lifeguards reported seeing an increase in the number of visitors to beaches around the coast.

These newly released figures cover people who got into difficulty while bodyboarding, using inflatables, kayaking, or canoeing, kitesurfing, paddleboarding, rowing, surfing, swimming, water-skiing, windsurfing and dinghy sailing.

In the South East (covering 31 lifeboat stations from the Thames to Swanage) by far the biggest increase this summer (June to August) was to incidents involving inflatables. In 2019 lifeboats across the South East launched 20 times to people in difficulty with inflatables and 26 people were helped. In 2020 there were 37 launches and 89 people aided – an increase of 242.3%.

The second biggest increase was lifeboat launches to waterside activities which include paddling, beach combing, playing games, horse riding and cycling***. In 2019 RNLI lifeboats in the South East launched 10 times to these types of incidents and helped nine people, in 2020 there were 14 launches and 28 people helped – an increase of 211.1%.

The growing popularity of paddleboards this year is also reflected in the figures. In 2019 the South East’s lifeboats launched eight times and four paddleboarders were assisted. In 2020 the number of launches increased to 12 with 12 people also assisted by the volunteer crews.

RNLI Water Safety Lead for the South East, Guy Addington, said the figures highlighted the dangers inflatables can pose at the coast and urged people to leave them at home in the future:

‘Inflatables can be great fun, but they are not designed for the beach as it’s easy to get swept out to sea,’ he said. ‘As these figures demonstrate, inflatables are one of the most common reasons our lifeboat crews are called to action during the summer months’.

‘They are particularly dangerous when there are strong offshore winds and there were a number of incidents around the South East this summer where people, in some cases children, suddenly found themselves being swept hundreds of metres offshore. Were it not for our lifeboat crews responding so quickly some of these incidents could easily have resulted in a tragedy. The best place to enjoy inflatables is in an enclosed area such as a swimming pool’.

In one particular incident in August, volunteers from Poole RNLI saved the lives of a teenage girl and her father who were spotted some distance offshore in the water with an inflatable.

As the light faded, time was of the essence and with a police helicopter hovering overhead as a marker, the lifeboat was on the scene in 12 minutes and rescued the pair who by that time had become separated from their inflatable. They were cold and distressed and had been in the water for 40 minutes:

One the same day the crew also rescued a seven-year-old girl spotted drifting out to sea on an inflatable lollipop and an 11-year-old on an inflatable dinghy.

The crew of the Whitstable RNLI lifeboat were called to multiple incidents involving inflatables during the summer months, several of which turned out to be beach toys which had become separated from their owners and were drifting out to sea:

‘This is the other big concern with inflatable beach toys,’ explained Guy. ‘Often lifeboat crews are launched to inflatables drifting out to sea because of fears there could be people in the water. Extensive searches are often carried out only to discover the toys have been blown off the beach. This could mean the lifeboat crew are unable to respond to other, perhaps more serious, incidents’.

‘With Christmas just a month away we’d urge anyone considering buying their loved one an inflatable to put safety first and make it clear it’s not to be used on the coast,’ he added.

The RNLI’s Head of Water Safety, Gareth Morrison, said: ‘Our volunteer crews have been on call throughout the pandemic. This year, they faced a summer like no other.

‘When lockdown restrictions eased, we saw people flock to the beaches to enjoy our coastlines instead of holidaying abroad. But that resulted in a huge number of people getting into difficulty around our coasts, with our lifesavers facing an incredibly busy summer.

'If you find yourself in trouble at the coast this winter, call 999 and ask for the coastguard.'

The RNLI has spent £1.2M this year on PPE to keep its lifesavers and public safe during the coronavirus crisis, including almost 700,000 face masks, 2.4 million gloves and 4,700 litres of hand sanitiser. Additionally, RNLI shops were closed, and fundraising events were cancelled, costing the RNLI millions in lost income.

RNLI lifesavers continued to work tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep people safe as lockdown restrictions eased and people flocked to the coast. As a charity, the RNLI relies on the support of the public to continue saving lives – and that support is needed now more than ever. The charity has launched its Christmas Appeal. To support, visit:


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· *Summer is defined as 1 June to 31 August 2020

· **The complete statistics for lifeguards and lifeboats will be available in early 2021.

· *** Waterside activities include paddling up to the knees, wading up to the chest, beach combing, cockle, mussel picking (not commercial) cycling, driving (or parked in vehicle) horse-riding, metal detecting, playing games (non-competitive), relaxing and rock pooling.

· Statistics correct as of 12 November 2020.

· Full breakdown of statistics is available upon request.

· Definition of watersports includes bodyboarding, dinghy sailing, inflatables, kayaking/canoeing, kitesurfing, paddleboarding, rowing, surfing, swimming, water-skiing and windsurfing.

The figures for the South East show the biggest number of launches was to motorboats. Although the number of times lifeboats launched to these was slightly down on 2019 (148 in 2020 compared to 154 the previous year) the number of people aided rose from 328 to 401. Launches to sailing vessels fell from 114 last year to 95 this year with the number of people helped by crews also falling from 262 to 175.

The figures also reflect the RNLI’s safety messaging highlighting that more than 50% of people who drown at the coast each year never even intended to get wet. In 2020 lifeboats in the South East launched 22 times to assist 27 walkers and runners at the coast – an increase of 12.5% on 2019.

RNLI media contacts

§ Paul Dunt, Regional Media Officer (South East), 0207 6207426, 07785 296252 [email protected]

§ 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 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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