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'He was talking about never seeing his unborn child when we rescued him': Volunteering with the RNLI

Brendan Copeland has been with the RNLI for 24 years, he spoke to TheJournal.ie about his experiences.

Warning: There are some graphic descriptions of injuries that some readers may find upsetting. 

THE ROYAL NATIONAL Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) rescued 1,278 people last year and saved 45 lives.

The charity relies on volunteers to provide its lifesaving service – as they make up 98% of all the organisation’s workers.

Brendan Copeland volunteered for 20 years before becoming a full member of staff in 2010. He spoke to TheJournal.ie about his experience, including some of the rescues that have stayed with him over the years.

unnamed (57) Source: RNLI via Press Office

“A young man – who swam for an hour a day – went out for a swim while at an unfamiliar beach with his wife.

“He found himself out at sea and lost. He spotted rocks and saw them as his last chance but when he went towards them he kept getting pushed out. He was exhausted, dizzy and delirious and he really thought it was the end for him.

“We found him as people nearby heard his shouts and contacted us.

When we rescued him he kept talking about his wife and how he wouldn’t see his unborn child – for a while we thought they were in the water too.

“We later found his wife standing alone on the beach – she was eight months pregnant.

“As he swam everyday for an hour, she was confident he just got sidetracked and was checking out caves or something. He had been gone two hours.

“He came back to thank us two days later, he told us then that he really believed he was going to die and that while he wasn’t a particularly religious man – he was praying to his own God.”

‘I can’t get over it’

Copeland, who now works as the Wicklow RNLI mechanic, described another incident from eight years ago that he still has trouble dealing with.

“We got a call at 8am – it was a beautiful calm morning. We were sent out to a fishing trawler that had three people on board. The wire rope had snapped and one of the men was in the wrong place at the wrong time .

It got his leg, arm and head. He was in a very bad way – he lost an eye and his skull was sliced. He couldn’t speak because his jaw was broken.

“I remember lifting his head and putting skin back over his skull. We put him on a stretcher and lifted him onto the boat. Over the phone a doctor explained to me what to do to keep him alive.

“The man had a broken pelvis, broken jaw, his ear was sliced off, he lost an eye, he had broken legs and a broken arm and part of his skull was sliced and he couldn’t say anything because his jaw was broken.

Even though he survived I can’t get over it – he came back three years later to thank us but I couldn’t see him.

“He’s doing really well now, he got a plate in his head but his legs and pelvis will never recover.

“I can’t get over it. I could never meet him because I think I’d be emotional and that’s not fair to him because he has been so brave and done so well.

I’m so glad he survived but I don’t feel I saved him, I feel I should have been able to do more.

“Even now I still find it hard to talk about.”


Copeland added how, “The sea is beautiful but it’s dangerous and when it turns on you – that’s it.

“We once saved a 53-year-old doctor who was very fit but got in trouble while out on his surfboard.

“His wife alerted us – she could see him lying on his board but he wasn’t moving and he was very far out.

We brought him back to shore and when his wife saw him in the stretcher she collapsed.

“He spent a week in hospital and he later sent us a letter to say that he was moving away from the sea. We asked him if he wanted his surfboard back but he told us to keep it – that was it for him and water. He wasn’t lying – he actually did move from the water and now lives in Athlone.

“We ended up putting the surfboard up for auction to raise money for the RNLI.”

What the RNLI does

unnamed (59) Source: RNLI via Press Office

The RNLI provides an on call 24-hour lifeboat search and rescue services to 100 nautical miles out from the coast.

There are 960 volunteer crew in Ireland, 190 volunteer shore crew and 1,100 volunteer fundraisers.

In 2013, the RNLI launched 1,087 times in Ireland rescuing 1,278 people and saving 45 lives.

That was an average of 25 people rescued a week and 21 launches a week. 25% of the call outs were in darkness.

How it does it

The charity heavily relies on volunteers but very few of the RNLI’s volunteer crew members have any professional maritime experience when they join.

The RNLI’s training provides crew members with comprehensive courses and recognised qualifications.

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Copeland explained, “We have to be able to survive ourselves in case anything ever happened so we do a sea survival course where we create stormy conditions and volunteers learn how to keep dry, safe, warm and basically learn how to survive for a couple of hours to give themselves a chance.”

The skills needed range from navigation to search and rescue; from being able to repair a lifeboat engine at sea to resuscitating someone who has stopped breathing.

The job isn’t an easy one and the RNLI recruitment page questions potential volunteers to consider the danger, darkness and unpleasant conditions:

Imagine for a moment that you’re part of the crew on a lifeboat. It’s 2.30am on a freezing January morning and the pager’s just woken you from a deep sleep in a snug warm bed. You then head out to sea in complete darkness and 10m waves rise and fall around you, ready to swamp you at any moment. Strong gale force winds throw the lifeboat around like a toy. A fishing trawler is in difficulties 23 miles out to sea.
Still want to volunteer?

How to get involved

unnamed (58) Source: RNLI via Press Office

Each Lifeboat station is managed locally by an operations team.

If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer with the RNLI, the first step is to approach your local operations team to express an interest. You can find you nearest team here.

A person’s application is considered based on availability, level of commitment and proximity to the lifeboat station.

RNLI’s Nuala McAloon said, “Most of our lifeboats launch within about 10 minutes from pager to underway, so the volunteer must either work or live within a reasonable distance.

“No previous sea going experience is required as crew are given complete training. The enrolment would then be processed dependant on a medical.”


Once the crew member has been enrolled as trainee crew – they begin their trainee crew development plan. It takes three years to complete before becoming a full crew member.

The plan is worked through with the assistance of trainers, local, divisional and mobile training units from Poole and assessments from a Divisional Assessor Trainer organised through the lifeboat training co-ordinator on station.

If performing well – probation is complete after 12 months.

Volunteers then attend a crew training course at RNLI College, Poole, Dorset. From there there’s ongoing training and a minimum of 12 afloat sessions in 12 months.

Copeland added, “I’m 24 years at it and I still don’t know everything.”

Read: Family of four trapped on rocks winched to safety by helicopter>

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