Lifeboat (rescue)

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A rescue lifeboat is a boat rescue craft which is used to attend a vessel in distress, or its survivors, to rescue crewmen and passengers. It can be hand pulled, sail powered or powered by an engine. Lifeboats may be rigid, inflatable or rigid-inflatable combination hulled vessels.


There are generally three types of boat, in-land (used on lakes and rivers), in-shore (used closer to shore) and off-shore (into deeper waters and further out to sea). A rescue lifeboat is a boat designed with specialised features for searching for, rescuing and saving the lives of people in peril at sea or in estuaries.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland rescue lifeboats are typically vessels manned by volunteers, intended for quick dispatch, launch and transit to reach a ship or individuals in trouble at sea. Off-shore boats are referred to as 'All-weather' and generally have a range of 150-250 nautical miles. Characteristics such as capability to withstand heavy weather, fuel capacity, navigation and communication devices carried, vary with size.

A vessel and her crew can be used for operation out to, say, 20 nautical miles away from a place of safe refuge, remaining at or on the scene to search for several hours, with fuel reserves sufficient for returning; operating in up to gale force sea conditions; in daylight, fog and darkness. A smaller IRB inshore rescue boat / ILB inshore life boat and her crew would not be able to withstand (or even survive) these conditions for long.

In countries such as Canada and the United States, the term 'motor lifeboat', or its US military acronym MLB, is used to designate shore-based rescue lifeboats which are generally manned by full time coast guard service personnel. On standby rather than on patrol mode these vessels are ready for service rather like a crew of fire fighters standing by for an alert. In Canada, some lifeboats are 'co-crewed', meaning that the operator and engineer are full time personnel while the crew members are trained volunteers.

Types of craft

Inflatable boats (IB), (RIB) and (RHIB)

Older inflatable boats, such as those introduced by the RNLI in 1963, were soon made larger and those over 3 metres (9.8 ft) often had plywood bottoms and were known as RIBs.[citation needed] These two types were superseded by newer types of RIBs which had purpose built hulls and flotation tubes.[citation needed] A gap in operations caused the New Zealand Lifeguard Service to reintroduce small 2 man IRB's, which have since been adopted by other organisations such as the RNLI as well.[citation needed]


Larger non-inflatable ships are also employed as lifeboats. The RNLI fields the Severn class lifeboat and Tamar class lifeboat as all-weather lifeboats, or ALB. In the United States and Canada, the term "motor lifeboat" (MLB) is used to refer to a similar (though slightly smaller) class of non-inflatable lifeboats, the latest of which is the 47-foot Motor Lifeboat.[1]



The earliest lifeboat stations and service with a documented history operated along the middle reaches of the Chang jiang or Yangtze, a major river which flows through south central China. These waters are particularly treacherous to waterway travellers owing to the canyon like gorge conditions along the river shore and the high volume and rate of flow. The 'long river' was a principal means of communication between coastal (Shanghai) and interior China (Chongqing, once known as Chungking).

These riverine lifeboats were of a wooden pulling boat design, designed with a very narrow length-to-beam ratio and a shallow draft for negotiating shoal waters and turbulent, rock strewn currents. They could thus be maneuvered laterally to negotiate rocks, similar to today's inflated rafts for 'running' fast rivers, and also could be hauled upstream by human haulers, rather than beasts of burden, who walked along narrow catwalks lining the canyon sides. [2]

United Kingdom

The first lifeboat station in Britain was at Formby beach, established in 1776 by William Hutchinson, Dock Master for the Liverpool Common Council.[3].

The first self-righting lifeboat is credited to Lionel Lukin, an Englishman who, in 1784, modified a 20-foot Norwegian yawl, fitting it with water-tight cork-filled chambers for additional buoyancy and a cast iron keel to make the boat self-righting.

The first boat specialized as a lifeboat was tested on the River Tyne in England on January 29, 1790, built by Henry Greathead. William Wouldhave and Lionel Lukin both claimed to be the inventor of the first lifeboat. One example of an early lifeboat was the Landguard Fort Lifeboat of 1821, designed by Richard Hall Gower. The first British boats were equipped with sail and oars. Double-ended designs could operate a rudder from either end so there was no need to turn.

These lifeboats were manned by 6 to 10 volunteers who would row out from shore when a ship was in distress. In the case of the UK the crews were generally local boatmen. One example of this was the Newhaven Lifeboat, established in 1803 in response to the wrecking of HMS Brazen in January 1800, when only one of her crew of 105 could be saved. The UK combined these local efforts into a national organization in 1824 with the establishment of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

The first motorised boat, the Duke of Northumberland, was built in 1890 and was steam powered.[4]


The United States Life Saving Service (USLSS) was established in 1848. This was a United States government agency that grew out of private and local humanitarian efforts to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. In 1915 the USLSS merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the United States Coast Guard (USCG).

In 1899 the Lake Shore Engine Company, at the behest of the Marquette Life Saving Station, fitted a two-cylinder 12 hp (9 kW) engine to a 34-foot (10 m) lifeboat on Lake Superior, Michigan. Its operation marked the introduction of the term motor life boat (MLB). By 1909 44 boats had been fitted with engines whose power had increased to 40 hp.

The sailors of the MLBs are called "surfmen", after the name given to the volunteers of the original USLSS. The main school for training USCG surfmen is the National Motor Lifeboat School (NMLBS) located at the Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment at the mouth of the Columbia River, which is also the boundary separating Washington State from Oregon State. The sand bars which form at the entrance are treacherous and provide a tough training environment for surf lifesavers.


Canada established its first lifeboat stations in the mid to late 1800s along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as along the shores of the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. The original organization was called the "Canadian Lifesaving Service", not to be confused with the Royal Life Saving Society of Canada, which came later at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1908, Canada had the first lifeboat (a pulling sailing boat design) to be equipped with a motor in North America, at Bamfield, British Columbia (province).

Modern lifeboats

Modern life boats have been modified by the addition of an engine since 1890 which provides more power to get in and out of the swell area inside the surf. They can be launched from shore in any weather and perform rescues further out. Older lifeboats relied on sails and oars which are slower and dependent on wind conditions or manpower. Lifeboats of this type generally have modern electronic devices such as radios and radar to help locate the party in distress and carry medical and food supplies for the survivors.

The Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RHIB) is now seen as the best type of craft for in-shore rescues as they are less likely to be tipped over by the wind or breakers. Specially designed jet rescue boats have also been used successfully. Unlike ordinary pleasure craft these small to medium sized rescue craft often have a very low freeboard so that victims can be taken aboard without lifting. This means that the boats are designed to operate with water inside the boat hull and rely on flotation tanks rather than hull displacement to stay afloat and upright.

Inflatables (IB)s fell out of general use after the introduction of RIBs during the 1970s. Conditions in New Zealand and other large surf zones was identified and Inflatable Rescue Boats (IRB), small non rigid powered boats, were introduced by New Zealand and have been put into use in many other countries including Australia and the RNLI in the UK.[5]


In Australasia surf lifesaving clubs operate inflatable rescue boats (IRB) for in-shore rescues of swimmers and surfers. These boats are best typified by the rubber Zodiac and are powered by an outboard motor. The rescue personnel wear wet suits.

Lifeboats are also operated inland at events, organisations such as the Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS UK) provide coverage of rivers, lakes and such like.


The Canadian Coast Guard Agency operates makes and models of motor lifeboats that are modified RNLI and USCG designs such as the Arun and the 47 footer (respectively).


In Germany, the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS) has provided naval rescue service since 1865. It is a civilian, non-profit organisation and has a variety of boats and ships, the biggest being the 46 meter (150 ft) SK Hermann Marwede. The DGzRS operates from 54 stations in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. It has 20 rescue cruisers (usually piggybacking a smaller rescue boat) and 41 rescue boats.

File:SK John T Essberger 2.jpg
SK John T. Essberger, one of the large 44m-class lifeboats of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS) of Germany


The Dutch lifeboat association Koningklijke Nederlandse Reddings Maatschappij (KNRM) has developed jet-driven RIB lifeboats. This has resulted in 3 classes, the largest is the Arie Visser class: length 18,80 m, twin jet, 2 x 1000 hp, max. speed 35 kts, capacity 120 persons.


Severn class lifeboat in Poole Harbour, Dorset, England. This is the largest class of UK lifeboat, at 17 metres long

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (or RNLI) maintains lifeboats around the coasts of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland manned by paid volunteers, many part-time, with equipment funded through voluntary donations[6]. There are around 50 other Lifeboat Services that are independent of the RNLI in and around the UK that provide lifesaving lifeboats and lifeboat crews 24 hours a day all year round, manned by unpaid volunteers. Their stations operate inshore and offshore ("All Weather") lifeboats. Most Scandinavian countries also have volunteer lifeboat societies. The local branch of a society generally schedules practices, maintains a lifeboat and shed, and is contacted by commercial marine radio operators when a rescue is needed.

In Britain, the RNLI design and build several types of all-weather motor lifeboats, the Arun class kept permanently afloat, the Tyne class slipway-launched boat and the Mersey class carriage-launched boat. More recently the Arun replacement Trent and Severn class prototype models were delivered in 1992 with the first production Trent arriving in 1994 and the Severn in 1996. The first production Tamar class, replacement for the Tyne went into service in December 2005 and the FCB2 class replacement for the Mersey is being developed for deployment in 2007.


The United States Life Saving Service began using motorised lifeboats in 1899. Models derived from this hull design remained in use until 1987.

Today in U.S. waters rescue-at-sea is part of the duties of the United States Coast Guard. The coast guard's MLBs, an integral part of the USCG's fleet, are built to withstand the most severe conditions at sea. Designed to be self-bailing, self-righting and practically unsinkable MLBs are used for surf rescue in heavy weather.

36' (foot)

The 36 foot T model was introduced in 1929. At 36 ft 10 in length overall, 10 ft 9 in beam and with a two-ton lead keel, she was powered by a 90 hp (67 kW) Sterling gas engine and had a speed of nine knots (17 km/h). From the early days of the 20th century the 36 MLB was the mainstay of coastal rescue operations for over 30 years until the 44 MLB was introduced in 1962.

Built at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay, Maryland, 218 36 T, TR and TRS MLBs were built between 1929 to 1956. Based on a hull design from the 1880s, the 36 TRS and her predecessors remain the longest active hull design in the Coast Guard, serving the Coast Guard and the Life Saving Services for almost 100 years, the last one, CG-36535, serving Depoe Bay MLB Station in Oregon until 1987.

44' (foot)

During the 1960s the Coast Guard replaced the 36-foot (11 m) MLB with the newly designed 44 foot (13 m) boat. These steel-hulled boats were more capable and more complicated than the wooden lifeboats they replaced.

In all 110 vessels would be built by the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay between 1962 and 1972 with an additional 52 built by the RNLI, Canadian Coast Guard and others under license from the USCG.

The last active 44' MLB in the United States Coast Guard was retired in May 2009,[7] however these boats are still in active service elsewhere around the globe. The 44' MLB can be found in many third world countries and is faithfully serving the Royal Volunteer Coastal Patrol in Australia and the Royal New Zealand Coastguard Federation. The current engine configuration is twin Detroit Diesel 6v53s that put out 185 hp each at a max RPM of 2800.

30' (foot) surf rescue boat

Another surf capable boat that the Coast Guard has used in recent years is the 30' surf rescue boat (SRB) introduced in 1983.[8] The 30' SRB was self righting and self bailing and designed with marked differences from the typical lifeboats used by the Coast Guard up until the early 1980s. The 30' SRB is not considered to be a MLB, but was generally used in a similar capacity. Designed to perform search and rescue in adverse weather the vessel is generally operated with a crew of two, a surfman and an engineer. The crew both stand on the coxswain flat, protected by the superstructure on the bow and stern. The boat's appearance has caused many to comment that it looks like a "Nike Tennis Shoe".

Since 1997 the introduction of the faster 47' MLB and the phasing out of the 44' MLBs made the 30 footers obsolete. The class of vessels underwent an overhaul in the early nineties to extend their life until the newer and faster 47' motor lifeboats came into service, and in the late 1990s most of the 30 footers were de-commissioned. One still remains on active duty at Motor Lifeboat Station Depoe Bay in Depoe Bay, Oregon and is used almost daily. This station was host to the last 36' motor lifeboat in the late 1980s.

47' (foot)

The USCG has since designed and built new aluminum 47 foot lifeboats and the first production boat was delivered to the USCG in 1997.

The 47 MLB is able to withstand impacts of three times the acceleration of gravity, can survive a complete roll-over and is self-righting in less than 10 seconds with all machinery remaining fully operational. The 47 MLB can travel at 25 knots (46 km/h) to reach her destination.

There are 117 operational with a total of 200 scheduled to be delivered to the USCG. A further 27 models are being built by MetalCraft Marine under license to the Canadian Coast Guard.

Response boat-medium

The Response boat-medium is a replacement for the 41' boats and the USCG plans a fleet of 180 in the USA.


See also


  1. Tlumacki, John (2009-05-08). "Coast Guard bids adieu to 44-foot boat". NY Times Co.. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  2. Evans, Clayton. Rescue at Sea. 
  3. Yorke, Barbara & Reginald. Britain's First Lifeboat Station, Formby, 1776 - 1918. Alt Press. ISBN 0-9508155-0-0 also see Liverpool's National Maritime Museum Exhibition and Archives
  4. "RNLI through time". RNLI. 2009. 
  5. "IRB Arancia on Perranporth in action". RNLI.,%20beach%20safety. Retrieved 26 June 2010. 
  8. "Timeline". USCG. Retrieved 26 June 2010. "1983 May -- Station Tillamook Bay puts into use the 30-foot Surf Rescue Boat (SRB)" 


  • John A Culver; The 36 foot Coast Guard motor life boat (1989 J.A. Culver)
  • Bernard C. Webber; Chatham, "The Lifeboatmen" (1985 Lower Cape Pub., ISBN 0-936972-08-4 )
  • Robert R. Frump, "Two Tankers Down: The Greatest Small Boat Rescue in U.S. Coast Guard History. (2008, Lyons Press.

External links

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