The beginnings

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution was founded in 1824, but went under the name of The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. It was the brainchild of Sir William Hillary, who was very much aware of the dangers of the sea to both crews and vessels, living as he did on the Isle of Man, where many ships were wrecked along the Manx coastline. He had the dream of a national lifeboat service manned by trained crews.

The Admiralty were not too enthusiastic about his idea, but undeterred, he appealed to some more generous philanthropists and enlisted the help of two members of parliament, George Hibbert and Thomas Wilson. However Sir William was not merely a thinker and dreamer, he took an active part in the running of his dream child. At the age of 60 he took part in a rescue, as commander of the lifeboat, which went to the aid of the packet St. George, in the entrance of Douglas Harbour. The whole crew of the lifeboat including Sir William were washed overboard, but fortunately everyone aboard the packet was rescued with no loss of life.

In 1854 the name was changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. During that year 13 new boats were added to the 39 already in operation. One of these new ones was stationed at Douglas, in recognition of Sir William’s work. By 1908 the numbers had risen to 280 RNLI lifeboats and 17 independent ones.

However we have to go back to the late 18th century to find the first lifeboat, although who actually designed and built the first one, is open to debate.

Lionel Lukin was a coachbuilder, living in Westminster. He had the idea of converting a Norway yawl to increase its buoyancy. He fitted a cork belt, watertight containers, cork blocks and an iron keel and patented his design as the “unimmergible boat”. Unfortunately his vessel, named Experiment, was not adopted, but Lukin pressed on with his work, building the impressive Witch, followed by a conversion of a coble for sea rescue.

At the same time, a certain William Wouldhave, a parish clerk from South Shields, was fascinated with the design of the wooden dipper, which was used to take water from a well. He found that no matter how it was placed in the water, it always righted itself. Surely this design could be used for a self-righting boat. He entered his design in the Lawe House competition in 1789. This was run by a private club known as the Gentlemen of Lawe House. They offered a 2-guinea prize for the “best-designed life-preserving craft”. His model, which won the competition, was a double ended boat made of tin and was to have air cells to give it extra buoyancy. It can still be viewed in the National Maritime Museum, but it was not until the 1840s that the self righting design was deployed.

Entering the same competition was a local boatbuilder by the name of Henry Greathead. He was commissioned to build “the first lifeboat”, which he named The Original. This vessel was 10m long and 3m wide with a high bow and stern, where there were cases filled with cork for buoyancy. There was a crew of 12 who were provided with cork jackets and she was powered by oars, entering service in 1790 and saving hundreds of lives. 31 more boats were built to this design, all extremely successful. The name “life-boat” was now highly popular and synonymous with saving lives at sea. Greathead proclaimed himself to be the inventor of the lifeboat, but understandably that did not go down too well with the aforementioned gentlemen. There were arguments between them over patents and stealing of designs. Lukin was asked to supervise the building of a new boat for the Suffolk Humane Society, who were finding their Greathead lifeboat too heavy for their area. It was launched in 1807, named the Frances Ann, and stayed in service for 42 years, saving 300 lives.

It is ironical that while Greathead received considerable financial reward and widespread fame for his efforts, Lukin and Wouldhave remained relatively unknown. Yet all three men played a vital part in the story of lifeboat design.

In 1851 James Beeching and James Peake produced a design named the Beeching-Peake self-righting lifeboat. It became the standard model for the fleet of the newly named Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but it was not until 1890 that the first motorised lifeboat came on the scene. Named the Duke of Northumberland, it was steam powered, but during the 20th century petrol and diesel power were adopted.

Today's fleet

Today the RNLI operates 332 lifeboats at 235 lifeboat stations and 112 boats in the relief fleet. There are 3 classes of inshore lifeboats, the Atlantic B class, the D class and the more recent E class. They carry crews of between 2 and 4, operating near the shore and are able to navigate in shallow water and close to cliffs. They have speeds of 25-40 knots. There are 5 classes of all-weather motor life boats operating further out to sea. The Tamar is the latest design, introduced in 2005. It joined the existing fleet of the Severn, Trent, Tyne and Mersey. These boats weigh more than 40 tonnes, with twin 1250hp engines, enabling them to travel at speeds of up to 25 knots and have an operational range of 250 miles between refuelling. There are also 4 hovercrafts, introduced in 2002, which carry a crew of 2-4 and can reach 30 knots. These are used on mud flats and river estuaries. There is also the Arancia, an inflatable, which carries a crew of 2 and can travel at 22 knots. This was added to the fleet in 2001.

The crew

The 4,600 crew members of the lifeboats are almost all volunteers and include over 300 women. They come from all walks of life and are dedicated to giving up their time to carry out rescues and save lives. They carry pagers which they will respond to at a moment’s notice, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and are expected to launch the lifeboat in ten minutes! That is some commitment!! They will frequently be in situations which will test their skill, strength and courage to the utmost, but because of their dedication and passion, more than 139,000 lives have been saved since 1824 and there have been numerous stories of bravery in the face of danger.

Who are they?

A typical lifeboat crew will include:

  • COXSWAIN – in charge of the lifeboat and in command when at sea. Responsible for launching and ensuring the safety of the crew. His duty is to safeguard and rescue any whose lives are in danger. At the end of each rescue he makes sure that the boat and equipment is in order and ready for service. Most are volunteers, although there are a few full-time coxswains and there may be a deputy to stand in if the coxswain is not available.
  • MECHANIC – responsible for maintaining the engines and all the machinery at a lifeboat station. His detailed maintenance programme will ensure that every piece of machinery is checked and maintained regularly, while on shore and also at sea. There is also an assistant mechanic.
  • HELMSMAN – a volunteer, in charge of the inshore lifeboat during the launch, at sea and at the end of each rescue. He is also responsible for the safety of the crew.
  • HOVERCRAFT COMMANDER – a volunteer in charge of the inshore rescue hovercraft. He has the same duties as the helmsman at an inshore lifeboat station.
  • CREW MEMBERS – On all weather and inshore lifeboats, these are all volunteers. Anyone can join the team as long as they are physically fit, can learn the necessary skills and work well as part of the team. They work with the coxswain and helmsman in carrying out all their duties, but must also keep abreast of changes in boats and equipment, by attending regular training programmes in such things as boat handling, radio, first aid, navigation and radar. On an inshore lifeboat there are usually 3 crew members and 6 on an all weather boat, including the coxswain or helmsman.

There are also Lifeguards, who often save lives in dramatic rescues, but who are mainly concerned with the vital work of preventing accidents. They are employed by the appropriate town or city council, but the RNLI provides their equipment and training. The voluntary Shore Helpers assist with the general running of the Lifeboat stations and the launch and recovery of the lifeboats.

Some statistics

In 2009 an average of 22 people per day were rescued by the RNLI, the lifeboats being launched 223 times during that year, rescuing 8,235 people. The crew and lifeguards have saved in the region of 140,000 lives since the early days in 1824. In summer there will be around 30 – 40 rescues every day.

How do you call a lifeboat?

Throughout the British Isles anyone reporting an accident at sea or a ship in distress must first contact the emergency services by telephone on 999 or 112 (the European and mobile phone emergency number), or by radio. Their call will be redirected to HM Coastguard or the Irish Coast Guard, who co-ordinate air-sea rescue and may call on the RNLI or their own rescue personnel.

The vision – “Train one – Save many”.

One has only to read about the purpose, vision and values of the RNLI to realise how selfless, reliable and expert these courageous people are, who put their lives on hold while facing severe danger to save others. It is remarkable to reflect that the life-saving service is manned mainly by volunteers and that it is supported by voluntary donations and legacies. It does not seek funding from central government, but is operated through local teams, centrally directed and resourced. The annual budget is in the region of a staggering £148 million, but the RNLI are experts in the field of fundraising, with over 35,000 volunteers, who organise charity events and rattle tins to raise this enormous sum. Maybe the fact that we are an island based community makes us more aware of the dangers of the sea and gives us a greater commitment to this wonderful organisation.

Author – Dee White

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