I Want Your Job: RNLI Helmsman

'Saving a life is the greatest feeling'
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The Independent Online

Kevin Maynard, 29, is a helmsman for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). He is based at Tower Lifeboat Station, right in front of Somerset House on the Thames in central London.

What does a lifeboat helmsman do?

I'm responsible for everyone on board the lifeboat. Each boat has three crew: a helmsman, a mechanic and a volunteer. On a rescue, the helmsman organises the crew and makes any decisions that need to be made in the heat of the moment. If anything goes wrong, I'm held accountable.

Back at the station, I greet visitors and show them around. The RNLI is a charity, run completely on donations, so it's visitors who pay our wages. There's maintenance and cleaning to be done, and we also spend time training our volunteers so that everyone is at the same standard.

What's a typical working day like?

The station is manned 24 hours a day, and we're set to launch in 90 seconds. Shifts last 12 hours, and the shift pattern is four days on, four days off. I get in half an hour early to check the boat parts for faults and get kitted up, because theoretically, you could get called out two minutes after the shift starts. You might go for six or seven shifts without getting any calls at all, or we can get seven calls in one night.

We are the busiest lifeboat station in the country, taking about 350 calls a year. We get called out more in summer because people go swimming – but because the Thames is such a fast-flowing river, the water doesn't heat up and anyone in the water can get in real danger quickly.

What do you really love about it?

The feeling you get when you come back knowing that you've just saved someone's life is unbelievable. It's the best thing. We've had a few letters from people who jumped in the river, saying they had been feeling suicidal, but that we gave them a second chance at life. There aren't many jobs where you can do that for someone. Also, because there's such camaraderie among the crew, everyone feels good, not just you.

What's difficult about it?

When you don't get called out for a while, and then suddenly get a call, you need to be switched on straight away. Sometimes people die on the boat or in the water, and you keep running over in your mind whether there was anything you could have done differently. Generally there isn't, but it's still tough. You see some nasty things – injuries, bodies – but as a crew, we're very open with each other, so you don't have to deal with things on your own.

What skills do you need to be a good helmsman?

You train at your station, then get assessed at the RNLI training centre in Poole. To be a good helmsman, you need an extremely good knowledge of your local area, and to be good at boat-handling – something I believe comes naturally. You've got to be quite a strong character, able to make decisions quickly and stand by them. But you've also got to be big enough to hold your hand up and say if something was your mistake, and be open to doing things differently. You also need to be good with people, as most people need a lot of reassurance when they're being rescued.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to work for the RNLI?

The best way is to get on a crew as a volunteer and get some local knowledge. We've had to close the waiting list for volunteers at Tower, but people living in coastal areas will find that their local crews are always looking for volunteers. Once you start as a volunteer on your local station, you have a probationary period before you get on a crew, and then you just train and train. People can stay on the same crew for 20 years.

What's the salary and career path like?

Volunteers get about £20 and their travel expenses paid. As a helmsman, you start on around £19,000, plus allowances. That's two-thirds of the wages you'd get in the private sector, but I do it because I want to work for the RNLI. I started out as a mechanic before becoming a helmsman. In terms of a career path, that's pretty much it, unless you want to work as a training officer.

For information on working for the RNLI, visit www.rnli.org.uk. For information on working as a coastguard, visit www.mcga.gov.uk. If you see anyone in trouble on the water, you should dial 999 and ask for the coastguard.