Brad Johnson: saving lives at sea

The RNLI lifeboat volunteer tells Vada how he balances saving lives at sea with a day job, and what it’s like to be LGBTQ+ in a small seaside town.

It’s in the seaside town of Skegness that Brad Johnson is preparing for the unexpected. Based at the town’s RNLI station, he is one of over 34,000 volunteers stationed across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. His role as a Launch Authority sees him receiving information from the coastguard, be it through emergency calls from 999 or a distress signal from a vessel at sea. Johnson then authorises which lifeboats to send to the scene of the incident and the resources that are required. It’s a role that comes with great responsibility.

Carrying a pager means that Johnson must stay within the town’s limits, whenever he is working a shift with the RNLI. “It allows me to spend time at the beach and fulfil my other roles on the station, such as Lifeboat Training Coordinator and Lifeboat Press Officer,” he tells Vada. When the bleep goes off though, Johnson’s focus shifts to his lifeboat crewmates. “It’s my role to support the seagoing crew in achieving their mission objective, ensuring the safety and success of each operation.”

The RNLI is the largest charity which saves lives at sea around the coasts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, providing a 24-hour search and rescue service from 238 lifeboat stations. Founded over 200 years ago, the charity estimates that its volunteers have saved more than 144,000 lives. Even during both World Wars, RNLI volunteers continued to respond to emergencies at sea, despite being faced with the dangerous conditions of war.

Originally solely open to male volunteers, the RNLI’s gender glass ceiling was broken by an 18-year old Norwegian student. The first female volunteer, Elizabeth Hostvedt, joined the organisation in 1969, yet it would be another two years before a female volunteer would be allowed to take part in an emergency response aboard a lifeboat. In 2005, Aileen Jones became the first lifeboatwoman to be awarded an RNLI Medal of Gallantry, after she and her fellow volunteers braved gale force winds and rough seas to rescue the crew aboard the Gower Pride. Today, the organisation seeks to open the doors to members of the LGBTQ+ community and strives to make the RNLI an inclusive place to volunteer, through its LGBT+ Network.

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Johnson began his own story with the organisation as a shore crew member, part of the team who prepare the lifeboats to ensure they are ready to launch, in the event of an emergency. Subsequently, he became a lifeboat crew member, attending emergency calls at sea, in all weather conditions and at all times of the day and night. Now, he uses his experience to oversea the launching of lifeboats, as well as training other volunteers and helps get the word out about the RNLI through his role within the press team.

The decision to join the RNLI, Johnson says, came after discussing with two friends who were already RNLI crew, based in Skegness. “Firstly, I wanted to make new friends and be part of a close-knit community with a common goal,” he explains. “Secondly, I was eager to give back to my local community by contributing to a charity that hugely impacts people’s lives in the Skegness area.” He also wanted to learn new skills that he could apply to both his role at the RNLI and in other aspects of his life.

Giving back to his local community is what Johnson finds to be the most rewarding part of volunteering. In fact just last year, he and his fellow crewmate Nick Walton undertook a challenge where they wore their all-weather yellow lifeboat kit, wellies and all, on the London Underground. Despite having to navigate the Tube during rush hour, whilst wearing kit designed for seagoing operations, the pair visited over 204 stations in 17 hours, and fundraised over £1,000 for the charity.

Alongside this, he shares that he feels grateful for the people he gets to meet and volunteer with. “Meeting the public, who are passionate about our work, is also always a pleasure. Sharing our experiences with others in person and online is truly rewarding.” There are also challenges to the role. Sometimes the outcome is not always positive. “You have to balance that,” he explains. “But we do this as a crew, supporting each other when the times are tougher.”

For a person in trouble at sea, RNLI volunteers can be the difference between life and death. So it’s perhaps even more remarkable that Johnson is able to squeeze in a full-time job alongside his volunteering. After graduating from the University of Hertfordshire with degrees in marketing and business, Johnson began his career working in higher education. Since then, he has worked with several universities and international organisations, and he is now Head of Progression at NCUK, a global education pathway company. “This experience has allowed me to make a difference in the lives of countless students and professionals seeking higher education options overseas,” he explains of his day job.

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It must be difficult to strike a balance, I venture. “I think what’s great about my job is that I am a remote worker with a very supportive employer that allows me to respond as a Launch Authority during the working day,” replies Johnson. He credits his employer for their flexibility, who allow him to respond to emergency calls and then catch up with his work later on. To unwind from the working day, he seeks solace in building LEGO and sharing his creations on his YouTube channel. “There’s something quite calming about focusing on an intricate build,” he says.

Being open about his sexuality is something that came naturally to him when he joined the RNLI. “It just came up in conversation,” Johnson recalls. “I’ve been truly overwhelmed by love and acceptance from all members of the crew. But it’s one of the oldest crewmembers who’s been one of the most supportive. He told me at the start, if anything offended me, to let him know and he’d make sure it stopped.” For Johnson, he feels that it’s important to have conversations with people if they’ve offended him, so that he can share his experiences and learning with them.

He explains that he understands that people are sometimes nervous, because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. “They didn’t want the joking and humour that’s such a big part of the station to upset me, which was really nice, but I made it clear that I wanted to be part of that,” says Johnson. When people have asked him questions about LGBTQ+, he felt these have come from a place of trying to understand, rather than prying or being intrusive.

Johnson describes his lifeboat station as his second family. “We’re a group of brothers and sisters, a family; and underpinning all families is love, trust and the unwavering level of respect. There’s more love in our lifeboat station than anywhere else I know. I’ve never felt more part of a family and a community than I have since I joined the RNLI.”

When asked if he had any advice for somebody thinking of coming out at work, Johnson points towards HR departments as a source of advice and guidance. He says he has never experienced any discrimination based on his sexuality, and feels that most organisations today are accepting and supportive. “Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Be confident in who you are and don’t let anyone change how they perceive you.”

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I ask Johnson about what it’s like being gay in Skegness. The town with its population of just under 20,000 may not seem, on the face of it, as the easiest place to be LGBTQ+. He refutes this. “Rural towns like Skegness don’t have a scene like Manchester or London, but the town is really inclusive, and you see Pride flags flying across the town throughout the year,” he tells me. “This is really great to see, and I think it’s a mixture of the community, employers and organisations really embracing all members of our community.” On a personal note, Johnson says he has a supportive group of friends nearby, and supports a community Pride event in a neighbouring town with fellow LGBTQ+ people from the area too.

As many of us will be heading to the seaside this summer, I want to know if Johnson has any tips he wants to share for staying safe at the beach. The first is making sure that the beach you’re at is a lifeguarded one. “You can find your nearest one on the RNLI website – and swim between the red and yellow flags,” he cautions. Checking the weather and tide times beforehand, is another top tip. “Make sure you don’t get caught out and to always take a means of calling for help, preferably in a waterproof pouch. If you get into trouble or you see someone else in trouble, call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.”

If you find yourself in trouble whilst in the water this summer, Johnson says to remember the phrase, float to live. “Tilt your head back with ears submerged and try to relax and control your breathing. Use your hands to help you stay afloat and then call for help to swim to safety if you can.”

When it comes to advising somebody thinking of joining the RNLI, I presume from his enthusiasm that he would encourage them to take the plunge. “Do it! Do it!” he replies. “It’s an experience you won’t want to give up, and you’ll create lifelong connections while making a real difference in your community.”

“It has been the best decision I’ve ever made and the RNLI has become an integral part of my life.”

Brad Johnson is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photography courtesy of the RNLI. He is based in Skegness, Lincolnshire. To support the charity provide search and rescue services across the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland this summer, you may donate on their website.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.