Be a lifeboat station volunteer

From the shore to the lifeboat, there are a variety of volunteer roles at our lifeboat stations.

Group shot of Barmouth RNLI's station volunteers outside the boathouse

Photo: Dan Wyre

Group shot of Barmouth RNLI's station volunteers outside the boathouse

Want to learn and develop new skills? Keen to give something back and use your spare time constructively? You can, by training to be a lifeboat volunteer with the RNLI.

There are 5,600 volunteer lifeboat crew members at stations around the UK and Ireland, 8% of whom are women, and another 3,500 volunteer shore crew members.

Why become a lifeboat station volunteer?

  1. Being a lifeboat crew member is one of the most exciting and fulfilling volunteer roles you could do.
  2. Volunteering with us gives you the opportunity to make a difference in your local community, to save lives and be part of the larger RNLI family.
  3. Join an inclusive and diverse organisation.
  4. We provide first class training, equipment, guidance and support.
  5. Learn new skills and gain experience to enhance your CV.

What lifeboat station roles can you do?

Lifeboat station and shore crew

Our volunteer crew are the backbone of the lifeboat service, physically saving lives at sea. They are available 24/7, whatever the weather, to rescue those who need help.

Life as a crew member - a reality check

Life on the crew is anything but predictable. You can expect to be called away from your family, your bed and your work at any time – it’s a big commitment. You’ll also spend many hours of your own time training.
 
When you’ve completed your initial training, you’ll be given a pager and personal protective equipment, or PPE. Although the role is voluntary, you will be entitled to reimbursement for any expenses you incur in your capacity as crew.
 
Serving with a lifeboat crew is an incredibly rewarding way to volunteer, but we know it can be stressful too, and have a significant impact on family and work life.
 
There are situations you may be involved in while carrying out your RNLI role that could have an impact on your physical and mental health. They include:

  • exposure to harsh conditions
  • rescues requiring first aid intervention
  • potentially aggressive situations
  • potentially traumatic incidents, such as those involving body recovery

Our crew members need to: 

  • be over 17 years old (with the permission of your parents) or over 18
  • be under 55 years old (inshore lifeboat crew) or 65 (all-weather lifeboat crew)
  • complete a health assessment, including an eyesight test
  • be physically fit
  • live and/or work close to a lifeboat station
  • pass a probationary period that usually lasts for 1 year
  • be a team player
  • enjoy hard physical work
  • get on well with other people
  • communicate easily
  • follow direction when required to.

Medical

Due to the extreme conditions of going to sea, you are unlikely to be issued with an RNLI medical certificate if:

  • you do not meet the RNLI’s requirements for colour vision/visual acuity (see below)
  • you have had laser eye surgery in the last 3 months
  • you are liable to epileptic seizures or sudden disturbances of the state of consciousness
  • you have had a coronary thrombosis (heart attack) or have undergone heart surgery
  • your blood pressure is significantly raised and not well controlled with drugs
  • you need insulin treatment for diabetes
  • you have had a stroke, or unexplained loss of consciousness
  • you have had a severe head injury with continuing impairment
  • you suffer from Parkinson’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis
  • you are being treated for mental or nervous problems
  • you have had alcohol or drug dependency problems within the last 3 years
  • you have profound deafness and cannot communicate clearly on the radio/telephone
  • you suffer from double or tunnel vision
  • you have any other condition which would/could cause problems regarding your fitness to navigate/crew a vessel
  • you suffer from any condition of bone or joint that may affect your mobility
  • you suffer from any condition that may affect bone strength or are on oral steroids.

Eyesight test

You are unlikely to meet the RNLI’s requirements for colour vision/visual acuity if:

  • there is any evidence of a colour vision defect as assessed using Ishihara plates*;
  • you are unable to read 6/6 in the better eye and 6/12 in the worst eye on the Snellen Chart from a distance of 6 metres even with glasses or contact lenses;
  • you are unable to read 6/60 with at least one eye without any visual aid;
  • you have defects in your field of vision in either eye;
  • you have evidence of any progressive disease in either eye, or suffer from any other eye condition which could limit vision either now or within the next 5 years.
  • * During the Ishihara plate test, aids for colour vision may not be worn. Up to two plates may be failed and still constitute a pass.

Coxswain

Two crew members are seated inside an all-weather lifeboat, wearing waterproofs. One has his hand on the wheel, steering the boat at sea. There are many controls, buttons and gauges, and windows to the front and to the side of his seat.

Photo: Don Jackson-Wyatt

The coxswain is in charge of the all-weather lifeboat and is in command when at sea. They are responsible for all the operations connected with launching the lifeboat, ensuring the safety of all the lifeboat crew onboard. It is the coxswain's duty to do all they can to safeguard and rescue those in danger. At the end of a rescue, the coxswain ensures that the lifeboat is ready for service and that the equipment is all in order. Most coxswains are volunteers, although some stations require full-time coxswains.

Helm

Two crew members are onboard an inshore lifeboat at sea. The sea is calm and the crew members are wearing waterproof kit, lifejackets and helmets.

Photo: Jonty Storey

The helm is a volunteer in charge of the inshore lifeboat when launching, at sea and when the boat is being recovered and made ready for the next rescue. The helm is responsible for the safety of the crew onboard and for everything that happens during a rescue.

Commander

Hunstanton Hovercraft on the beach

RNLI rescue hovercraft are used to carry out rescues on mud, sand and shallow water, making them particularly useful on estuaries and tidal mudflats. The commander is a volunteer who is in charge of the hovercraft during launching, when on service and also at the end of a rescue when the hovercraft is being recovered to make sure it’s ready for the next rescue. The duties of a commander are the same as for a helm at an inshore lifeboat station.

Mechanic

A lifeboat crew member carries out maintenance work on a lifeboat engine. There are two large engines, and the crew member wears mechanic’s overalls.

Photo: Don Jackson-Wyatt

Every all-weather lifeboat station has a full-time mechanic, who is responsible for maintaining the lifeboat’s engines and all the machinery. At sea, the mechanic checks that the engines and other machinery are all working properly, as well as being part of the crew. At stations that only have inshore lifeboats, volunteer mechanics make sure the lifeboat is ready for service through correct operation, maintenance and repair. 

Head launcher

A launch and recovery tractor has brought a lifeboat back to station from the sea, over a wide sandy beach. Three volunteers in waterproofs and high-visibility vest are washing the lifeboat with hoses. One volunteer looks on, with Head Launcher written on the back of their vest.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The head launcher, acting under the direction of the coxswain or helm, takes charge of operations connected with the launch and recovery of the lifeboat or hovercraft. They oversee a team of shore crew, which may include volunteers with specialist skills such as vehicle or plant operators.

Crew members

Four lifeboat crew members are out on deck at the stern of an all-weather lifeboat in a rough sea. They are wearing waterproofs, wellies and lifejackets, and they have high-visibility hoods up. They are bracing themselves against the weather.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Volunteer lifeboat crew members, together  with the coxswain or helm, operate the lifeboat during rescues and to ensure the safety of rescuees. As well as going out on rescues, lifeboat crew members also commit to regular training in boat handling, radio communications, casualty care, navigation and radar. 

Shore crew

RNLI shore crew volunteers work together to retrieve their station lifeboat after a shout using a launch and recovery tractor.

RNLI/ Nigel Millard

The role of shore crew is to help with the launch and recovery of the lifeboats on service and exercise and to contribute to the overall upkeep of the station, lifeboats and equipment. 

Lifeboat training coordinator

Two lifeboat crew members are doing navigation training in a lifeboat station. There is a maritime chart on a table, and the crew members are using instruments, pencil and paper to practise navigating.

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

They ensure that the operations team at the station is aware of the training requirements. They support and promote training at the station, arrange assessments and manage the accuracy of training records

Only 1 in 10 lifeboat crew members has professional maritime experience – that’s where crew training comes in.  The RNLI has a training scheme that all crew members and other operational volunteers must take part in. This scheme is coordinated at your lifeboat station.
 
Every crew member is allocated a development plan, starting as crew and moving on (if you wish and there is a need at the station) to navigator, helm, coxswain etc.

You’ll benefit from world-class training and gain invaluable skills. These include personal and professional skills such as:

  • leadership and teamwork
  • effective communication
  • assertiveness and self-confidence
  • commitment, self-discipline and responsibility
  • how to deal calmly with difficult situations
  • search and rescue
  • search and rescue unit handling
  • navigation and radar training
  • radio communications
  • casualty care

Find out more about our lifeboat crew training

The health and wellbeing of our lifeboat crews is paramount and we take our duty of care seriously. There’s lots of help available, including: 

Physical wellbeing 

Support from the volunteers at your lifeboat station, RNLI staff and our Occupational Health Team.

Mental wellbeing 

Support 24/7 is a free, impartial and confidential advice service. RNLI Mental Health First Aiders are also available. 

Peer support 

Our trauma risk management (TRiM) programme can help you if you experience a potentially traumatic event or incident while on duty. 

Personal injury benefit 

Short-term financial assistance towards loss of earnings is available if you incur an injury while on operational duty or exercise. 

Hardship assistance 

The Lifeboatmen’s Benevolent Fund offers financial assistance to crew, former crew and their families in times of hardship. 

Support for crew families

Support is also available for the families of crew through our RNLI Families Programme. Download our families booklet (1MB)

What skills and experience do I need? 

You don’t need any particular skills or experience to join the crew – lifeboat volunteers come from all walks of life. All we ask is that you are enthusiastic about saving lives at sea, willing to learn new skills and ready to put your life on hold when the call comes. You’ll need to get on with people too, enjoy hard physical work and follow direction. 

How much time will I have to commit? 

Only you know how much time you can give to the RNLI so you will need to discuss this with the lifeboat station, and make them aware of your availability. Most of your training will take place at your lifeboat station. In addition to being on call, we ask you to do a minimum of 12 training exercises afloat in a 12-month period. 

How do I fit volunteering around work? And home life? 

Our rescues are only possible with the generous support of local employers. It’s important to notify your employer from the outset so that you can come to an agreement on time required for training and on responding to a pager while at work. 

Joining the lifeboat crew is a major commitment so it’s important you discuss it with the people in your life who may be affected first. Your family will have to live with your pager and they will make a significant contribution to the RNLI too. We have a dedicated team who will be able to offer you advice about this. 

How near to the lifeboat station do I need to live or work?

This varies from station to station. We aim to have an average launch of time of 10 minutes from when the pagers are activated but there are some stations with no set distance on how far you need to live or work. Please contact your local lifeboat station to find out their requirements. 

Supporting the crew

Lifeboat operations manager

You will be responsible for managing all operational activities (including authorising launches) and day-to-day station management. 

Lifeboat press officer

Help raise awareness of the RNLI, through promoting the activity of the lifeboat station, highlighting the lifesaving work of our volunteers and sharing key messages via local, digital and social media. 

Lifeboat medical adviser

Performs the crew's medicals and gives first aid and scenario training.

Lifeboat management group chair

Provide local leadership to ensure all matters relating to the RNLI locally are coordinated.

 

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