The Royal National Lifeboat Institution saved 140 lives last summer as crowds of people headed to the seaside after the first lockdown, an increase of more than 30% on the same period the previous year.
Water safety experts at the RNLI said there was a sharp increase in the number of people getting into difficulty while using standup paddleboards and that its lifeboats were scrambled to more rescues at traditionally less popular spots as people hunted for a quiet space away from the masses.
It also said the usual drop-off in rescues of open-water swimmers in the autumn and winter was not so noticeable because more people continued to exercise – and seek solace – in the sea.
The charity expects this summer to be its busiest ever, after a winter and spring of lockdown restrictions, and with uncertainty over how feasible holidays abroad will be.
Gareth Morrison, the charity’s head of water safety, said it launched 8,239 lifeboats in 2020 – about the same as a normal year – and the number of lives saved for the whole year was 349, more than in 2018 (329) but fewer than in 2019 (374).
But Morrison said the summer season, from the start of April to the end of August, was more intense than normal with RNLI lifeboats launching an average of 42 times a day over the period, almost double the average for the rest of the year.
Morrison said: “It was a quiet March and April, for obvious reasons, but a much more condensed summer period. We didn’t see the normal tail-off in the autumn, particularly for open-water swimmers.
“Usually in October most open-water swimmers hang up their wetsuit boots until Easter but that did not happen. We think that pattern of behaviour is here to stay.”
The RNLI is gearing up for another busy year of rescues close to shore such as paddleboarders. “Stockists were selling out last year and a whole bunch has been bought this Christmas. They will potentially be one of the largest contributory factors to lifeboat and lifeguard callouts in 2021.”
The south-west of England was particularly busy for the RNLI last summer but Morrison said the charity was struck by how many historically quiet beaches had been busier than usual. “People wanted to avoid others. We’re expecting that pattern of behaviour to be repeated.”
His key message was for beach lovers to head to one of the more than 240 beaches patrolled by RNLI lifeguards in the UK and the Channel Islands.
To prepare for the extra demands, the RNLI has launched a new campaign called The Mayday Mile, which encourages people across the UK to complete a mile, in any way that they like – running, walking, swimming, even dancing – to raise money for the charity.