Challenging and tough but also exciting and rewarding – what it is like to be a lifeboat volunteer in Brighton

On call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the dedicated volunteers at Brighton RNLI lifeboat station have saved countless lives at sea.

Tuesday, 6th April 2021, 2:42 pm
The RNLI lifeboat station at Brighton Marina

In 2020, they responded to around 70 incidents – whatever the weather. Alongside boats in trouble, swimmers, kayakers, paddle boarders, missing persons and the odd pet have all required assistance.

Based in the Marina, there are 24 volunteers at Brighton’s station. Their carbon fibre, 8.5-metre-long boat, Random Harvest, is a B class Atlantic 85. It is capable of 35 knots per hour (40 mph) and boasts a survivor capacity of 20.

But what is it like to be a volunteer? When that pager rings at 1am on a bleak January morning, what motivates them to rip off the covers and spring into action? Why do they do it?

Olivia Davison training off the coast of Brighton

Uncommonly for the RNLI, Brighton’s volunteers are typically not from seafaring backgrounds. They are computer consultants, engineers, builders, electricians, paramedics and doctors.

Long-term crewperson and retained maintainer John Webster said: "Although there are challenges, this diversity has advantages because it brings in different mindsets and ways of doing things. Adaptability is an important part of what we do.”

After moving to Brighton with his family, John joined the station to 'meet new people and get to know the area'.

“It was a necessary part of me becoming part of the local community,” he recalled. The unique, often high stress, situations John had faced forged a strong sense of belonging and comradery with his crewmates.

Some of the RNLI volunteers out at sea

He added: "What we have experienced has bonded us as a group, as a unit. As individuals we’re heavily bound to one another through our experiences.”

But John warned the RNLI is not for everybody. "You have to be pretty level-headed," he said. "You need to be able to cope with pressure.”

Working as a paramedic, Olivia Davison has been on the crew for over four years.

“Actually, I stumbled into it,” she said. At a music festival, Olivia met some RNLI fundraisers, one thing led to another, and before she knew it, she was speeding over the waves on her first shout.

Olivia said: “The first time I went out it was overwhelming, I never thought it was something I could ever do, I didn’t think I was good enough.”

Yet, with the crew 'going above and beyond' to support her, now a call-out is second nature to Olivia.

Despite this, Olivia said her mum is 'still petrified' and has asked if she would 'prefer knitting instead'.

Olivia joked: “She’s my mum, though, isn’t she? I’ve got to keep her on her toes.”

The volunteering has done much more than keep Olivia on her toes, that's for sure.

“Holistically, volunteering for the RNLI is a bit of everything," Olivia said. "It’s challenging. It’s tough. It’s a lot of commitment. But, overall, it really shapes you as a character. It pushes you beyond the comfort zone in a way you’ve never imagined. It’s been the making of me for sure."

Adam Butterworth, a trainee helm, values the fact the RNLI has invested in him. Thanks to their 'world-class training' he said he has learned radio communications, navigation, first aid, seamanship and helming the lifeboat.

And that's not all. Adam said: “Besides doing good for the community and giving something back, there’s a level of excitement and adrenaline that comes with the job. If it wasn’t fun, no one would do it.”

Adam did admit he is sometimes afraid of the sea. He added: "It’s an unknown, such a big thing that is so powerful, you must always respect it. One of the worse things would be to be on the lifeboat crew and have to call up the coastguard and say can you come and get me please.”

Do you think you could be ready for the challenge? Find out about becoming a RNLI volunteer here: if you’d prefer to stay dry, you can donate here and support their invaluable work.