The RNLI today

Falmouth lifeboat & RNAS Culdrose Sea King Search and Rescue helicopter at 2004 Coverack Lifeboat Day
Falmouth lifeboat & RNAS Culdrose Sea King Search and Rescue helicopter at 2004 Coverack Lifeboat Day

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has come a long way since 1824. Those early pioneers of the lifeboat service were unbelievable folk; they’d row out to a stricken vessel in a force 10 storm using just muscle power and determination, rescue a ship’s crew and row all the way back home again. What an amazing and selfless dedication they had to saving the lives of others.

Working on Lifeboats can be a dangerous business

However, as you can imagine, many a lifeboat crew lost their own lives in the pursuit of saving others; one of the most famous lifeboat disasters must surely be that of the Mexico rescue. To this day it remains the worst loss of crew in a single rescue.

The Mexico was bound from Liverpool to Equador and left British port on the 5th December, 1886. However, four days later she was still off the north west coast when a violent storm blew up and she ran aground in the Ribble Estuary, just fifteen miles up the coast from Liverpool. Spotting the ship’s distress the crews of the Lytham, St. Annes and Southport lifeboats launched to rescue the stricken crew.

The Southport boat launched first but she capsized as she reached the Mexico, all but two of her sixteen crew perished. The St. Annes lifeboat launched twenty minutes after the Southport boat but nobody know what happened to it as it was found washed up the following morning with all hands lost. The Lytham lifeboat was on her maiden rescue and she managed to save the lives of all twelve of the Mexico’s crew.

Introducing one of the most venerable lifeboats of all time

During the 19th century most of the RNLI’s lifeboats were self-righters; they’d automatically turn right way up if they capsized. However, these self-righting lifeboats had a problem, they weren’t very stable. G.L. Watson developed a lifeboat with much more stability but at the cost of the self-righting feature. It was a trade-off that the RNLI accepted; surely a boat that was less likely to capsize in the first place was a better bet.

The first of the Watsons was built in 1908 and had a motor instead of relying on the muscle and/or sail power used in previous designs. This made transit to the scene of an incident and back quicker and enabled the crew to be much fresher upon arrival at the point of the rescue. The design went through many different itterations but the basic design of the wooden hull remained. Safety was gradually improved; self-righting was reintroduced through the deployment of a self-inflating air bag, radio communications was added, as was radar. The last of the Watsons was launched in 1963 and remained in service right through until 1992 when ON969 left the reserve fleet – she was in service for 29 years.

The loss of the Penlee lifeboat

Unfortunately the loss of lifeboat crews was still a problem until as recently as 1981.

The Solomon Brown, one of the last developments of the Watson class (a 47 footer), departed Penlee station (Mousehole, Cornwall) on the 19th December, 1981, to attend the stricken Union Star that had lost her engines and which was quickly being blown in towards the coast. The weather was atrocious; a hurricane (force 12) had blown up and the lifeboat was battling 60′ high waves.

The skipper of the Union Star had earlier refused the assistance of a salvage tug out at sea as that would have entitled the salvage crew to a reward equal to the value of the property saved. Gambling that the engines could be restarted before disaster struck the captain, his vessel and crew, edged ever closer to the rocky Cornish coast.

The coastguard scrambled Rescue 80 from nearby Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Culdrose, but the Sea King was unable to get a line to the stricken bulk carrier and so the lifeboat was called out. The lifeboat did reach the Union Star and managed to take four of the eight persons on-board off. However, after a further attempt radio contact was lost with the lifeboat with all hands and the crew of the ship.

Vast improvement to lifeboat safety

Since the 1980s lifeboat design has come on in leaps and bounds.

The modernisation started with the fast Arun class that could achieve 18 knotts. She was a self-righter with water-tight cabins for both the crew and those that had been rescued. Developments since then have seen boats get faster, bet better equipped with modern radio communication and radar equipment, not to mention the safety features that make the job of working on a lifeboat so much safer. This has resulted in there being no recorded deaths of lifeboat crew in-service since the Penlee disaster.

But that’s not to say that being a lifeboat crew member isn’t dangerous; they still volunteer to mount rescue missions when everybody else decides to stay safely inside – these guys are amongst the bravest in the country and they deserve our support.