International Women’s Day: The sisters saving lives at sea

Sisters Emily Summerfield (right) and Sarah Huntley

A woman who was inspired by her younger sister to join the RNLI has spoken out about their experience saving lives together, to mark International Women’s Day.

Mum of two, Emily Summerfield first signed up for Brighton lifeboat in 2019. She has recently inspired her older sister Sarah Huntley to join the crew.

Having grown up around a boathouse – their dad was a volunteer with Eastbourne RNLI for 20 years – it was a question of “when, not if, we’d join,” says Summerfield.

“Dad was on the crew from when I was about 10 – it was totally normal for his pager to go off in the middle of the night, and he would go off to help save lives at sea. We thought it was all really exciting. That was what inspired me to join.

“I can’t wait for my first shout with Sarah — dad’s ever so chuffed to see us both on the crew, and that’ll be a really special day for us all.”

After some encouragement from Summerfield, Huntley has signed up to be a volunteer and is currently going through training.

RNLI sisters Emily Summerfield and Sarah Summerfield

Huntley says: “The RNLI really appealed to me – I’ve got a background in lifeguarding and love the water, and I wanted to give something back.

“Everyone’s been so friendly and welcoming. There’s a really good mix of people from all different backgrounds who you wouldn’t normally get to meet in normal life who’ve all come together because they want to save lives at sea, and there’s a good bunch of girls down here at Brighton.”

It’s been 54 years since the first woman qualified as an RNLI crew member. Women currently make up around 12.3 per cent of the RNLI’s volunteer lifeboat crew, a figure the organisation says is steadily growing.

“International Women’s Day is all about girl power, but everyone is equal on a lifeboat – it doesn’t matter if you are female or male, we are all working together to save lives and keep people safe,” says Summerfield.

Huntley adds: “If we can inspire other women and girls to think that this is something they can do too, then that’s awesome.

“To anyone thinking about joining the RNLI, just give it a go. Even if you haven’t got any background on the water or don’t know your way around a boat, the training is so comprehensive and starts from scratch.”

RNLI Brighton attend a call-out
RNLI Brighton attend a call-out

Sue Kingswood, RNLI inclusion and diversity manager says: “Creating an inclusive culture which supports diversity is key to our long-term sustainability. So, we’re working hard to make sure that a wide range of people see the RNLI as a charity where they’re welcome as volunteers, supporters or staff.

“As we approach our 200th anniversary, women are now more evident in operational search and rescue (SAR ) roles throughout the RNLI than they have ever been before. They are also better represented across operational management and in SAR training roles, which is great to see.

“However, we still have a long way to go to achieve the representation we would like, not only where women are concerned, but across a much broader spectrum of diversity too.”

In January, MIN reported that an RNLI station in North Shields had launched its first all-female crew, hailing it as a ‘momentous occasion’.

Helmed by Anna Heslop, the four-strong RNLI Cullercoats spent an hour-and-a-quarter in the North Sea on a training exercise. It was the first time the station had ever launched a crew consisting of all women. Until ten years ago, there had never been a female volunteer at the station.

In January, the charity appointed Janet Legrand KC (Hon) as its new chair. She takes over from Janet Cooper OBE, who had been acting chair for the past six months.

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