The Life of the RNLI Helm

Chris Gibson and Ray Searles recently qualified as volunteer RNLI helms at Teddington RNLI Lifeboat Station, which is located opposite Teddington Lock on the River Thames. Here is a short interview illustrating what the helm does and Chris and Ray’s experiences so far.

What are the responsibilities of a helm for the RNLI?
Chris: The helm is a volunteer in charge of an RNLI Lifeboat when launching, at sea or on the River Thames and when the lifeboat is being recovered and made ready for the next rescue. The helm is responsible for the safety of the crew onboard and for everything that happens during a rescue.

When and why did you start volunteering for the RNLI?
Chris: I started volunteering with Ray 4 and a half years ago. I love sailing and thought I would put some of my skills to use whilst volunteering for an amazing charity. Where else would you be able to drive around on the water doing 20 knots with a blue flashing light and people are pleased to see you?

Ray: I bought a little boat for messing around on the river with my daughter and realised I didn’t know much about boats, and I knew another helm Tim James, and he suggested I volunteer as RNLI lifeboat crew so I decided to swop one knowledge for another. (Ray is a London cabbie and spent years studying and passing the “knowledge”, London’s legendary black cab driver test).

What skills do you need as helms?

Ray: you need to be level-headed, and calm under pressure. They teach us to stop and think about what we need to do, reflect and take a breath, digest what’s hap- pening and see the whole picture. All of the volunteers do continual training and training doesn’t stop once you pass out as a helm. Every day is a school day!
Chris: You also need to recognise that we are all different and that every volunteer brings something to the table. As a helm, we try to understand personalities, encourage each other at all levels and as a result we can help recognise when someone else is ready to train as a helm. A sense of humour is also important!

What is the most interesting and useful thing you have learnt?
Chris: As crew, we all learn how to care for a casualty, both out on the lifeboat but also in our day to day lives. Just this week, I was able to help a man who was fitting and having a seizure. My training enabled me to remain calm and help him.
Ray: I found an inner skill – that I have the patience to teach others, which I found surprising.

The RNLI is powered by passion, talent and kindness. Would you agree?
Ray: Those are my three best attributes along with modesty!

What has been your most emotional moment whilst volunteering?
Chris: Talking someone into having a cuppa with you rather than hanging around a damp bridge – it’s all about people and people skills.

Would you encourage your children to volunteer?

Chris: Definitely. Anyone can volunteer from the age of 18 (or 17 with parental permission).
Ray: I would definitely encourage my daughter to do it. It’s great to be part of the bigger RNLI family.

This article was written by Gianna Saccomani, Teddington RNLI Deputy Lifeboat Press Officer and Crew
For more information on the RNLI please visit

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