As we move towards Christmas, many emergency services personnel will be preparing to be on shift over the festive period. Many others will be on call, ready to leave family celebrations early to go to the aid of a stranger.
Among those will be the close to 10,000 men and women who make up the lifeboat and shore crews of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). An incredible 97 per cent of the charity’s frontline lifesavers are volunteers, giving their time and commitment 24/7, 365 days a year, to saving lives at sea. Since its founding in 1824, RNLI lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 144,700 lives.
And of course, the service doesn’t stop for the festive season. Over the last five years, RNLI lifeboats have launched almost 600 times during the Christmas period, from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Eve. Whatever weather winter throws at them, RNLI crews are ready to battle the elements to save lives at sea. These rescues, and others all year round, are only made possible by the RNLI’s generous supporters, helping to fund the essential kit, training and equipment needed by lifeboat crews.
For many of these crews, lifesaving is a family affair. The tradition of following a family member into the lifeboat service is one that is still very much alive at stations all around the coast of the UK and Ireland and has helped ensure the charity’s lifesaving service has continued for nearly 200 years.
The Leigh family’s story
Just one of these lifesaving dynasties is the Leigh family from Littlestone-on-Sea in Kent, whose family tradition has seen them serve as volunteers for the RNLI for over fifty years. Happily, it’s a tradition that is set to continue, as 18-year-old Samuel Leigh follows in the footsteps of his father Peter and grandfather Pat to become part of the Littlestone crew. A-level student Samuel recently became part of the volunteer shore crew at the station – helping with the launch and recovery of the lifeboats on service and exercise – and is now looking forward to his first Christmas on call.
“It’s become a real family tradition to volunteer for the RNLI, and I am so pleased to be continuing it – it’s very rewarding to know that I am helping to save lives at sea. We all hope that our pagers won’t sound over Christmas, but at least if they do I know my family will understand if I have to cut the celebrations short and that my dad will be coming with me!”
Samuel’s father, Peter Leigh, began volunteering with the Littlestone-on-Sea crew over thirty years ago, and is now Helm of the station’s B-class inshore lifeboat, the Jean McIvor. Peter first volunteered alongside his own father Pat, who had himself joined the crew in the 1960s.
“I am so proud of Samuel, Peter said. “It’s amazing to know he’ll be carrying on our family tradition and will be there to help to launch the lifeboat when the call for help comes. I have such strong memories of volunteering with my own father so it’s wonderful to now be welcoming my son onto the crew.”
Although the current RNLI lifeboat station only opened a few years before Pat first joined the crew, there has been a lifeboat at Littlestone-on-Sea since the 1860s, with the Leighs hoping to continue their tradition of lifesaving for many years to come.
“I’m so proud of my son and grandson following in my footsteps as RNLI volunteer crew members. There’s no feeling quite like bringing someone home safe to their families – especially at Christmas. But as volunteer lifeboat crew we couldn’t launch without kind donations from the public which fund the kit, training and equipment we need to save others and get home safely to our own families.”
200 years of lifesaving
It is these donations, along with thousands of volunteers like the Leighs, that make the RNLI a truly unique rescue organisation, and one which will mark the significant milestone of its 200th birthday next year. The RNLI’s founder Sir William Hillary’s vision for a service dedicated to saving lives at sea became a reality in the City of London Tavern on 4 March 1824, where over 30 prominent men put their names to the fledgling charity at its inaugural public meeting.
The 200 years since tell a remarkable story, from triumphs to tragedies; from oar-powered vessels to the boats packed with cutting-edge technology used today; from introducing the first lifeboats on the River Thames to rolling-out a UK beach lifeguard service; from running the UK’s biggest ever drowning prevention campaigns to working with others to save lives overseas.
Throughout its bicentenary year, the charity will be running events and activities to remember its important history and celebrate the modern lifesaving service it is today, while hoping to inspire generations of future lifesavers and supporters.
Exhibitions, outdoor events, special services of thanksgiving, partnerships and education programmes are just some of the activities which will be taking place across the UK and Ireland. There will also be a special 200th anniversary range of products available through the RNLI’s shops and online.
Today, the charity is saving more lives, in more ways, in more places than ever before. It operates 238 lifeboat stations and has seasonal lifeguards on over 240 lifeguarded beaches around the UK and Ireland. It designs and builds its own lifeboats, and it runs domestic and international water safety programmes.
But, while innovations and developments in technology over the course of 200 years have inevitably changed how the charity saves lives, some things have remained the same. The volunteering ethos at the heart of the RNLI is what makes the charity so special – volunteers have given their time and commitment over the past two centuries, as they continue to do today. Generous donations have continued to power the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Everything the RNLI has achieved since 1824 has been made possible thanks to their generosity.