The RNLI is an organisation dedicated to the saving of people’s lives at sea. If a boat is in difficulty less than 50 miles off the coast of Britain or Ireland, the RNLI can send a lifeboat to rescue people.

Rescue at sea – the RNLI


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Rescue at sea – the RNLI

by John Russell

Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

These words come from a famous hymn by William Whiting: 'Eternal Father Strong to Save'. It is better known as the Naval Hymn and is popular with many navies and lifeboat services around the globe. One of the first national lifeboat organisations in the world was founded in the UK, in 1824. It was then called the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck; today it is better known as the RNLI – the Royal National Lifeboat institution.

What is the RNLI?

The RNLI is an organisation dedicated to the saving of people’s lives at sea. If a boat is in difficulty less than 50 miles off the coast of Britain or the Republic of Ireland, the RNLI can send a lifeboat to rescue these people. It also provides lifeguard services in certain areas, making beaches safe for swimming.

There are over 230 RNLI stations and almost 8,000 people were rescued in 2003 alone. Since its foundation in 1824 by Sir William Hillary, over 130,000 people have been rescued by the RNLI.

Who pays for it?

As a large, fully equipped lifeboat costs almost £2 million pounds and it takes over £200,000 a day to keep the service running, money is very important. It is surprising to learn that although the organisation saves so many lives, it is a charity and receives no money from the government. It is paid for completely through donations, legacies and fundraising events. The first time public collecting boxes were officially used in Britain was for the RNLI – back in 1891. Today boat-shaped collection boxes can be found all around the country.

Who runs it?

As well as being a charity, the RNLI is run by volunteers. Almost 4,000 brave men and women risk their lives to help rescue others at sea. Most volunteers have normal jobs, which they must be ready to leave at a moment’s notice if their lifeboat needs to be launched.

Volunteers come from all walks of life. There is even a lifeboat service in South Wales manned completely by students at a local college, Atlantic College. They are mainly 17 and 18 years of age, and over the last 30 years this service has saved over 100 lives.

Fateful Dates

1886 – The Mexico

The crew of a German boat, the Mexico, travelling off the north-west coast of England, needed rescuing in a storm. Three RNLI lifeboats went to the rescue, but the sea was so rough that only one reached the Mexico. One boat was hit by a large wave and the other was never seen again. Twenty-seven lifeboat-men died that day.

1979 – Fastnet Race

On August 11th 1979, 303 yachts were competing in the biennial Fastnet race – a 608-mile yacht race off the south coast of England. They were caught unexpectedly in a very bad storm – the worst for many years. Winds of over 60 miles an hour struck the boats and many sank. Seventeen people drowned – it was the worst yachting disaster ever in the UK. Even more would have died without the help of the RNLI and other rescue boats.

Safety procedures have improved since then. Racing yachts are more difficult to sink and all must carry emergency radios. Accidents still happen, though. At a recent sailing event near the Isle of Wight (the Cowes Regatta), the RNLI launched more than 70 times to help or rescue people at sea. The event only lasted one week! Happily, no lives were lost on this occasion.

Who is Captain Calamity?

In an attempt to sail round Britain in a 4.5-metre boat, Mr Stuart Hill had to be rescued five times by RNLI lifeboats, and twice by helicopters in the summer of 2001. The papers at the time called him ‘Captain Calamity'. Similarly, in the year 2000, another sailor had to be rescued more than five times in the Irish Sea – he was using a road map for directions!

Whatever the situation, whatever the weather, the work of the RNLI volunteers continues, day and night, 365 days a year.





Dear British Council,
In the sentence: "... off the coast of England or the Republic of Island, the RNLI can send a lifeboat to rescue people." Ireland is mis-spelled and the word these is omitted in the text.
By the way, a long time ago when I was swimming in the sea at a Brazilian beach, I couldn't walk on the seafloor due to its depth and was rescued on a board by two young men. I think they've saved my life since I thought I was in real danger at that moment. 
I think people working as rescuers at any place in the world are making a wonderful work.
Thanks a lot to all of them,

Dear Oscar,
Thank you once again for spotting these errors. I've corrected them.
Do let us know if you find any others!
Best wishes,
The LearnEnglish Team

Your texts

BuiDuyQuang writes: Nowadays the RNLI is a famous organisation in rescue at sea. The RNLI has rescued over 130,000 people since they began. And the volunteers are an integral part of the organisation. With the high price of keeping the service running, and the fact that the RNLI hasn't received money from the government, they need to receive money through donations, legacies and fundraising events. In my country there is little organisation for sea rescue. And the vehicles are old-fashioned. I wish my country would have the station of the RNLI. I like the ending of the article “Whatever the situation, whatever the weather, the work of the RNLI volunteers continues, day and night, 365 days a year." It seems that the RNLI is always there with you everywhere – if you have problem at sea the RNLI will help you.


L. Hamilton writes: I have never been rescued at sea and the only boat I have been on is a ferry. I would say that people like Captain Calamity do try the patience of the saints. They deserved to be rescued the same as any other unfortunate soul lost at sea. However, they need a swift kick to the backside for putting themselves in this position. Your group is showing the world what’s important. Keep up the good work and God bless.