A close call on Christmas Day – and the chance to save a brother’s life

‘I knew that if the anchor on his boat slipped, my brother would be gone.’ These are the emotional words of Steven Wilson, a volunteer member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) crew at Aith, Shetland.

John Robertson on his new boat holding a lobster caught whilst at sea

Photo: RNLI/John Robertson

John Arthur Robertson on his new boat

Every RNLI crew member signs up to save every one* from drowning – the charity’s mission since 1824. Volunteer crews are ready to leave their loved ones this Christmas and answer the call for help to reunite another family – and for Steven, last Christmas that family was his own.

On Christmas Day 2020, Steven and his wife and children had just finished their festive meal when he received a terrifying call. His brother John-Arthur, an experienced fisherman, had suffered engine failure whilst travelling to the nearby harbour at Clousta ready to sell crab and lobster the following day. Stranded in deep water, his small creel boat was drifting dangerously close to rocky cliffs in ever-worsening conditions.

‘I’ve been on boats all my life’ recounts John-Arthur. ‘When I left the pier it was a calm, clear moonlit night. I felt no worries – it was just another day.’

But his luck was not to hold, and the engine of his boat soon overheated and stopped. Worse still, the changeable winter weather took a turn for the worse, with gale force winds and huge seas. John-Arthur tried to drop his anchor, but the water was so deep that the boat was forced just metres from the cliffs before it touched the sea bed. Recognising the seriousness of his situation, he made the call to his brother, and then to the Coastguard, who immediately requested the launch of Aith’s Severn class all-weather lifeboat.

Making up part of the volunteer crew on board was Steven, who understood all too well the danger that his brother was now in. ‘I knew he was in big trouble’, says Steven. ‘My heart was in my mouth. I could feel the adrenaline pumping in every part of my body.’

It took twenty minutes for the lifeboat to reach the stricken boat, where Steven and his crew mates tried desperately to throw a line to John-Arthur, hampered by high winds and pitching seas. After three attempts a line was finally attached, and the lifeboat was able to begin the journey back to Aith, where the brothers were reunited and able to return to finish Christmas Day with their loved ones.

‘Back at home, the reality of how close John-Arthur had come to losing his life sank in’, says Steven. But the experience hasn’t stopped John-Arthur from going out fishing – although he’ll be sticking firmly to dry land this Christmas Day, choosing to spend the day with his large family. ‘I have more respect for the sea since the rescue and I will definitely appreciate Christmas more this year.’

And as for the lifeboat crew that left their own family celebrations behind to rush to his aid a year ago? ‘Most of the crew are family friends, and it was a huge comfort to know that they were coming to help me. I’m only here this Christmas thanks to the RNLI - they’re worth their weight in gold. I’d encourage anyone to give what they can this Christmas, so that crews like my brother’s can be here to help people like me again this year, and in the years to come.’

Over the past decade, lifeboats like Aith’s have launched over 1,200 times and helped over 600 people during the Christmas period*. Last year alone, RNLI lifeboat crews launched 111 times over the festive season.

As a charity, the RNLI relies on the support of the public to continue saving lives, at Christmas and all year round. Donations are needed to provide vital training, equipment and lifesaving crew kit to keep volunteers safe while they risk their lives in the harshest conditions.

To make a donation to the RNLI’s Christmas Appeal visit: RNLI.org/Xmas

RNLI media contacts

For more information please contact Emily Hazard, PR Manager on 07866 064437 or emily_hazard@rnli.org.uk. The RNLI Press Office can be reached on 01202 336 789 or Press_Office@rnli.org.uk

*The RNLI’s Christmas Appeal this year carries the strapline ‘to save every one’ and features real-life stories from volunteer crew

*The term ‘Christmas period’ here refers to 24 – 31 December inclusive

John holding a crab on a boat at sea

Photo: RNLI

John Arthur Robertson on his boat
Aith Lifeboat with a rope to tow a creel boat to safety

Photo: RNLI

Aith Lifeboat towing creel boat to safety 
Portrait of Steven in RNLI jacket and life vest standing in front of RNLI lifeboat

Photo: RNLI/John Robertson 

Steven Wilson

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.

Learn more about the RNLI

For more information please visit the RNLI website or Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. News releases, videos and photos are available on the News Centre.

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.