Martin Jones always knew he wanted to be involved with the RNLI, spending much of his childhood helping out around Rhyl’s lifeboat station, where his grandfather was one of the crew. At 17, Martin joined the team of life-savers, and seven years later became the station’s full-time mechanic.

Now aged 51, Martin is the coxswain at Rhyl, and he is one of more than 5,600 RNLI crew members around the UK and Ireland who are dedicated to saving lives at sea, called in to launch their lifeboats and respond to emergencies at any time of day or night, on any day of the year.

The charity will soon turn 200 years old, and in that time the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) has saved more than 140,000 lives through its search-and-rescue and beach patrol operations.

Founded by Sir William Hillary in 1824, the charity is mainly staffed by volunteers and has become a treasured national institution, with 238 operational lifeboat stations around the coast of the UK and Ireland and lifeguards patrolling more than 200 beaches – helping to save not just those people who work on the sea but the thousands of visitors and holidaymakers who flock to the coast every year.

“The RNLI exists to help keep people safe along the coast, but no one ever goes to the coast expecting to get into trouble,” the charity said.

In the RNLI’s West region, which mainly covers Wales but also the Isle of Man and England’s northwest coast, lifeboats were launched for 1,343 incidents in 2020. Callouts for individual stations, like Rhyl, can reach into three figures in a single year.

“On average we have between 80 and 100 callouts a year, from May to the end of August are the ‘hot months’, as we call them,” Martin told The National. “We have a range of incidents – persons being cut off by the tide, and we cover a vast amount of holiday and caravan parks, so when the winds are offshore we get the inflatable dinghies and toys [being swept away from shore] – we get quite a few of them.

“We also cover the windfarms off the North Wales coast, so we get some commercial traffic, some medivacs (medical evacuations), and some fishing vessels as well.”

But a substantial amount of callouts relate to people who never intended to go near the water – in the West region last year, more than half of all emergencies were for walkers or runners, including 112 times lifeboats sent to help people who required urgent help after slipping or falling at the coast.

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This year has brought extra challenges for the charity, prompted by ongoing uncertainty and restrictions around foreign travel. As a result, many people have chosen to stay in the UK and have a holiday at home this summer. While this is good news for our tourism industry, for the RNLI’s lifeguards and lifeboat crew members.

Martin said there was a “massive” increase in callouts in Rhyl at the start of the summer.

“Last year we did 64 incidents, and by the end of July this year we’d done 80 already,” he added. “I think the bad weather of August has quietened things down on the beaches, but generally we’ve had a really busy year. I think everybody was flocking from the cities to the coast because everyone had been locked up with Covid for so long.”

With so many callouts, life as an RNLI crew member can be challenging, not least because an emergency can happen at any moment.

“You never know when you’re going to get called out,” Martin said. “Sometimes it can greatly affect family life. My daughter’s birthday is in April, and probably every year for eight years we had a callout on her birthday. She used to make a joke, but it does become part of a way of life that you do end up leaving family dinners, get-togethers, because the pagers go off. That can be quite challenging.”

The National Wales: The Rhyl RNLI lifeboat crew on exercise. Picture: RNLIThe Rhyl RNLI lifeboat crew on exercise. Picture: RNLI

There’s also a strict training regimen that crew members have to follow throughout their service. Most training is done at lifeboat stations themselves, but there are also regional trainers and the RNLI has its own purpose-built lifeboat college in Poole, Dorset.

In Rhyl, Martin is in charge of training the 35 crew members, who all have to pass special competence training before they qualify, and then meet twice weekly to brush up on their skills. But whereas joining a lifeboat crew used to be something that only attracted seafarers, these days it’s a much more diverse mix of people.

“At one time we used to have fishermen and yachtsmen, but you tend to find now that we’re so busy as a station, they come from all walks of life,” Martin said. “But there’s a lot of commitment to being a lifeboat crew member.”

There’s an element of risk, too. While the RNLI is a lifesaving service, crews can be called out to emergencies in rough seas and dangerous conditions.

“It has its moments – you don’t really think of it at the time but afterwards, if you’ve had a difficult incident, maybe the next day you think to yourself: ‘Oh that was a little bit hairy’”, Martin said. “But to be fair the RNLI provide us with the best equipment and training in the world.”

The National Wales: A lifeboat from RNLI Rhyl on rough-weather training. Picture: RNLIA lifeboat from RNLI Rhyl on rough-weather training. Picture: RNLI

And for the people who serve on the lifeboats, there is no better reward in the job than completing a successful mission.

Martin said: “It’s massively rewarding. When you can bring somebody home to their family you realise you’ve made that difference and the family’s still complete. That’s what we do the job for – to bring people back safe.”

Volunteers have always been at the heart of the RNLI’s philosophy, and as a registered charity it relies heavily on public goodwill and fundraising campaigns. The lifeboat service receives no UK government funding and less than two per cent of the RNLI’s total funding comes from government sources.

Some 93 per cent of the charity’s total income comes from donations, and a common way of giving to the RNLI is via legacies, in which money is left to the lifeboat service in a will or in memory of a loved one. People can also donate to the charity via the RNLI’s website or fundraise by completing a challenge or campaign. There are several weird and wonderful fundraising ideas on the charity’s website.

While these are ways you can support the RNLI financially, you can also help ease pressures on the charity by following important safety advice when you are at the coast. We asked the RNLI for some top tips.

“We ask people planning on visiting the coast to plan their visits and choose a lifeguarded beach where possible, and swim between the yellow and red flags,” the charity said. A list of lifeguarded beaches is available on the RNLI website.

The RNLI added: “If you unexpectedly enter the water, we encourage people to remember to ‘float to live’.

“By extending your arms and legs you are able to recover your breath for approximately a minute to avoid the effects of cold-water shock, which can affect people in water temperatures lower than 15C (the average temperature of UK and Irish waters is 12C). This then enables you to make a calm and logical decision about the next steps to take.”

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