Volunteer crew members at the RNLI have faced an unprecedented summer with new data revealing a dramatic increase in the number of water users needing to be helped by local lifeboat crews compared to 2019.

Based on provisional incident reports from RNLI lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland, there was a 64% increase in the number of recreational water users aided by the RNLI. Additionally, many lifeguards reported seeing an increase in the number of visitors to beaches around the coast.

These newly released figures cover people who got into difficulty while bodyboarding, using inflatables, kayaking, or canoeing, kitesurfing, paddleboarding, rowing, surfing, swimming, water-skiing, windsurfing and dinghy sailing.

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In the South East (covering 31 lifeboat stations from the Thames to Swanage, including the Isle of Wight), by far the biggest increase this summer (June to August) was to incidents involving inflatables. In 2019 lifeboats across the South East launched 20 times to people in difficulty with inflatables and 26 people were helped. In 2020 there were 37 launches and 89 people aided – an increase of 242.3%.

The second-biggest increase was lifeboat launches to waterside activities which include paddling, beachcombing, playing games, horse riding and cycling.  In 2019 RNLI lifeboats in the South East launched 10 times to these types of incidents and helped 9 people, in 2020 there were 14 launches and 28 people helped – an increase of 211.1%.

The growing popularity of paddleboards this year is also reflected in the figures. In 2019 the South East’s lifeboats launched eight times and four paddleboarders were assisted. In 2020 the number of launches increased to 12 with 12 people also assisted by the volunteer crews.

Guy Addington, RNLI Water Safety Lead for the South East, has said the figures highlight the dangers inflatables can pose at the coast and he has urged people to leave them at home in the future:

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“Inflatables can be great fun, but they are not designed for the beach as it’s easy to get swept out to sea,’ he said. ‘As these figures demonstrate, inflatables are one of the most common reasons our lifeboat crews are called to action during the summer months.

“They are particularly dangerous when there are strong offshore winds and there were a number of incidents around the South East this summer where people, in some cases children, suddenly found themselves being swept hundreds of metres offshore. Were it not for our lifeboat crews responding so quickly some of these incidents could easily have resulted in a tragedy. The best place to enjoy inflatables is in an enclosed area such as a swimming pool”.

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