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Increasing the Number of Women in Maritime Search and Rescue

By Theresa Crossley

The International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) is the nongovernmental organization working to develop and improve maritime search and rescue (SAR) capacity around the world, preventing loss of life in the world’s waters.

Since its establishment as the International Lifeboat Federation in 1924, there have been a number of female lifeboat crew members and several all-female lifeboat crews, but women in these roles are still not the norm. The U.K.’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is still mostly men. Only 8 percent of lifeboat crew members are female.

But times are changing, reflected in the fact that the IMRF secretariat itself is predominantly female, including me, its CEO.

Women’s roles can be limited by a public perception of what’s appropriate or not, but the IMRF, working with our members all around the world, can see that over and over again women can change perceptions and really make a difference—wherever and whenever they are given a chance.

“The sea does not care if you are a man or a woman, nor does the casualty who you are rescuing,” said IMRF Secretariat staff member Rebecca Sweeney, an ex-seafarer and RNLI volunteer crew member. “All lifeboat crew members experience times when they need to be strong, brave and fearless. They should not, however, have to be any of those things simply to ‘compensate’ for their gender.”

Today, several national SAR organizations are headed by women. Sjöräddningssällskapet, the Swedish Sea Rescue Society, is led by CEO Cia Sjöstedt. She manages 2,300 volunteer crew members, and the society is responsible for 80 percent of all sea rescues in Sweden. The organization has set itself the goal of achieving crew diversity—both gender and ethnic—promoting inclusion at all levels.

“Making room for more women in maritime SAR is part of a larger question: How can we create diversity in every working group?” said Sjöstedt. “If we think inclusively from different perspectives, the end result will always be better, and this is important in SAR, where we, by tradition, have had a male-dominant culture. Changing this is all about leadership, in our organizations as well as at rescue stations and on board our vessels.”

In Greece, “Women are strongly represented in the HRT [Hellenic Rescue Team], and they are active in mountain rescue, sea rescue and urban search and rescue; in fact 35 to 40 percent of our volunteers are women aged between 16 and 60 years old,” said HRT President Giorgos Kalogeropoulos. “Two of our past presidents have been women, and more recently, when our headquarters in Thessaloniki recruited 63 new volunteers, 30 of them were women. We are delighted that women’s participation is growing year on year. We actively promote women’s involvement.”

Rikke Lind is an IMRF trustee and the secretary general of Redningsselskapet (RS), the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue. “There is no doubt that diversity in organizations improves results,” she said. “We need people with different backgrounds, ages and cultures—and we need both men and women. At Redningsselskapet, we have worked determinedly towards recruiting more women in maritime positions and in SAR, both as employees and volunteers. We have recently recruited two experienced female leaders in key positions and will continue our focus on increasing the number of women in the maritime sector.”

Redningsselskapet has 25 stations around the coast of Norway, run by 1,200 volunteers, and women are represented throughout. For example, of 12 new volunteers in Oslo, four of them are women, and of the 25 heads of stations employed by RS, six are women. They’ve also just recruited a new female captain.

As part of its work to build global maritime SAR capability, the IMRF is planning maritime SAR training sessions specifically for women in developing countries to increase their expertise and qualifications, enabling them to share their knowledge and skills.

Diversity in search and rescue was discussed at the IMRF’s World Maritime Rescue Congress 2019 in June in Vancouver, Canada. The event marked the launch of a new Women in SAR network, an IMRF initiative to provide women around the world the opportunity to share their experiences and challenges.

“Irrespective of gender, everyone in the SAR community is united in our common aim of preventing loss of life in the world’s waters, and women are proving that they bring special qualities and skills to this important sector,” said Dave Jardine Smith of IMRF. “In SAR, we speak of ‘casualties,’ ‘persons in the water,’ ‘survivors.’ We are not gender-specific about the people we save. It should not matter if the rescuers are men or women. It’s what they do that matters.”

To find out more about the Women in SAR network, email: info@imrf.org.uk or visit international-maritime-rescue.org.


Theresa Crossley was appointed CEO of the International Maritime Rescue Federation in October 2017. She was previously the head of shipping policy and chair of the U.K. Search and Rescue Strategic Policy Committee in the U.K. Department for Transport for six years, and she served for five years as a deputy director of the European Maritime Safety Agency based in Lisbon, Portugal.