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Volunteer rescue

Jan 1, 2003

Most U.S. transatlantic cruisers are probably unaware of the fact that when they have completed a crossing and have entered the coastal waters of Great Britain they are then under the protection of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. In the event they develop any kind of maritime emergency, the RNLI is one of the best equipped, most efficient, and most professional maritime rescue services that exists anywhere, and it is manned entirely by volunteers.

If you have any sort of disabling problem just as a howling gale is blowing you down on a lee shorethe coast of Great Britain is the safest area you could pick to have it happen. Bailing people out of disastrous difficulties at sea is literally an everyday occurrence for the volunteers of the RNLI. Here's an example:

On a night in November, the Belgian trawler Noordpool started taking water while running in the English Channel a short distance NNE of the town of Humber on the east coast of England. In response to a call from Britain's Coastguard, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) at 0925 dispatched one of its larger all-weather rescue vessels, a 54-foot Arun Class "lifeboat" named Kenneth Thelwall, stationed at Humber, to assist. The crew of Thelwall definitely was not about to have a good day! The 50- to 55-knot winds had kicked up 25- to 30-foot seas in the Channel. The heavy seas slowed the rescue vessel to well below its normal 18-knot speed. It took them a little more than an hour to reach the trawler, which was drifting in large swells with both her engine and her pumps inoperative.

Although two other ships were standing by, neither had the equipment needed to assist the stricken vessel When Thelwall arrived, a pump that had been dropped to Noordpool by helicopter was also inoperative, and the trawler was in a dangerous position. With the tide about to change, she would soon be swept onto an inhospitable lee shore.

The skipper of the rescue vessel decided to put an emergency pump aboard the trawler, which was wallowing out of control in 30-foot seas, in hopes she could then pump out her engine room and start her engine. Since the high seas made it impossible to come alongside the trawler, the only way to make the transfer would be to package the pump and float it over. First the rescue vessel took position upwind of the trawler's stern so as to pass a heaving line across followed by a breeches buoy line to carry the pump in a protective container across to the trawler.

In spite of the howling winds and mountainous seas the awkward transfer finally was successful, and the trawler was able to pump herself out and restart her engines. In case Noordpool should have further difficulties, the RNLI boat stayed with her until she finally arrived safely in port. By the time the lifeboat and her crew returned to base it was close to 2100. They had been out on this assignment fighting storm winds and seas for about 11 1/2 hours.

A 299-boat fleet

To successfully dispatch units of their specially designed and equipped rescue fleet to assist people and vessels in difficulty at sea, the RNLI maintains on station, ready for immediate dispatch 24 hours a day, a fleet of 299 rescue vessels of varying sizes ranging from 16-foot rigid inflatable outboards up to 55-foot all-weather cutters. In addition they maintain a reserve fleet of an another 135 boats to substitute in case any of the 299 regularly assigned boats is out of service for any reason.

These vessels are operated from RNLI boathouses strategically located in 220 towns spread all around the coasts of England, Scotland, Wales, and Irelandyes, Ireland as well. In the area of handling maritime emergencies, the English and the Irish have no difficulty getting on the same wavelength!

The larger RNLI all-weather vessels are kept on moorings close to the boathouses used by their crews. Smaller ones are stored indoors in boathouses and are launched from ramps that run down from the boathouses to the water. During 1996, for example, they saved 1,291 lives or an average of three to four a day. About 54% of their calls are to help sail, power, or manually operated pleasure boats. The rest are missions to aid commercial fishing or cargo vessels. For example, on November 19, 1996, one of their larger all-weather boats, another Arun Class cutter, succeeded in saving a disabled 9,000-ton, 500-foot cargo ship in 70-knot winds and 25-foot seas.

Okay, the U.S. Coast Guard has been doing the same things for mariners in difficulty under the same kinds of challenging weather conditions along the U.S. coasts, for years. So what's so special about the RNLI? For starters, the fact that the RNLI consists entirely of volunteers. Next, it is financed entirely by voluntary contributions making it completely independent of any government control or supervision. Further, the RNLI owns outright all of its hundreds of boats of many types and sizes designed to fit the varied conditions occurring at their widely scattered operating locations. The largest of these boats cost more than $2.5 million each, while the cost of the standard protective outfit for a single crewman runs to more than $450. The larger vessels carry crews of six; the smallest carry two or three.

By contrast with the newly commercialized towing services in the U.S., the RNLI is voluntarily supplying a free service to mariners whether they be pleasure boatmen or sailors on commercial vessels of any nationality. The operating cost of this service was estimated at £70 million ($114 million) for the year of 1997. That covers boats, boat maintenance, training, equipment, and miscellaneous operating costs. There are no salaries for the crew people who will actually take these 299 boats out to sea. They are all volunteers. The term crew people is correct since more than 150 of them are women.

In order to be ready and able to put to sea at any time day or night the people who make up these volunteer crews live and work at their normal occupations in the vicinity of the stations where the lifeboats on which they serve are located. This arrangement enables the RNLI to dispatch its boats very quickly when needed, even though the crews are all volunteers.

How the RNLI was formed

In Great Britain as early as 1772 a few widely scattered members of the nobility installed lifeboat stations at their shoreside castles or manor houses to aid endangered mariners. In 1786 an inventive English coach builder named Lukin devised the first "unsinkable" lifeboat, and he subsequently converted for lifesaving service a number of boats already in use. Over the years a few more scattered lifeboat stations gradually appeared.

Finally, in 1824 a Sir William Hillary, a lifeboat crewman himself, recognized the need for a coordinated nationwide network. In response to his appeals an organization called "National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck" was formed. Who but a group of l9th century upper-class British gentry could come up with a ponderous name like that?

From the start, this Institution was voluntarily supported. It was started to fill a clearly perceived need for a sea rescue service that the central government was then either unable or unwilling to provide. It became generally known as the Shipwreck Institution until 1854. During that year the name was changed to "Royal National Lifeboat Institution," not quite as heavy a mouthful.

In 1854, along with a new name the RNLI began to receive a subsidy from the government Board of Trade because voluntary contributions at that time were proving inadequate. Along with this money came some government meddling with the management of the organization that the very independent-minded volunteers found unwelcome. By 1869 voluntary contributions had increased to the point that, by mutual agreement, the government stopped the subsidy and at the same time dropped out of the Committee of Management as well. Since then the RNLI has been supported entirely by voluntary contributions and operates completely independently of the national government. The RNLI crews are intensely proud of the voluntary spirit of the RNLI and would not now willingly accept government or any other outside interference of any kind in its operation.

Until 1890 all RNLI lifeboats were powered by either oars or sail, or both. In that year the first steam-powered lifeboat went into service. Oars, sail, or steam, or combinations of these, were used to power lifeboats until 1909, when gasoline engines were introduced, allowing boats so equipped to venture farther out to sea and do so in worse wind and sea conditions than was possible with steam-powered vessels. Actually, oars and sail continued to be used to power some lifeboats as late as 1936, when the last sails were replaced by diesel engines.

Radiotelephone communication on AM was introduced to the RNLI fleet in 1929. Improved communications followed the introduction of the more compact and reliable VHF radio in 1956. During WW II many RNLI crew people went into the Royal Navy leaving some of their lifeboat crews shorthanded. In addition to this they had to contend with mines, as well as submarine and air attacks. In spite of these problems the RNLI saved 6,376 people who might otherwise have been lost. After the war, in the 1950s, helicopters began to be used in combination with RNLI boats on rescue missions, and in 1958 the first self-righting boats were introduced. Much like similar vessels developed by the U.S. Coast Guard, they could be completely rolled over in heavy seas, right themselves, and continue on their way.

In the 1960s inflatable outboard-powered lifeboats were introduced to deal with the increasing number of close inshore emergencies. Also, the first on-board radar was installed in an RNLI vessel in 1963. In 1967 the first all-weather Fast Afloat Boat (FAB) with a speed of 15.5 knots was introduced. The design of this boat was based on a U.S. Coast Guard model. Before the introduction of this boat the maximum speed of the larger RNLI all-weather rescue boats was nine knots. Another important innovation came in 1969 when the first female lifeboat crewperson came aboard.

The first British-designed, fast, all-weather boat, the Arun Class, was introduced in 1971. The 1970s also brought two faster, more powerful inflatables into the RNLI fleet. One is a 23-foot boat with a top speed of 29 knots, and the other is a 17-foot boat that can do 27 knots. If capsized, both can be righted and their immersion-proofed engines will restart.

During the 1980s and 90s the RNLI has continued to improve and enlarge its fleet with larger, faster, and more fully equipped rescue vessels. They now have two classes of large all-weather rescue boats, the Severn at 55 feet and the Trent at 47 feet, that are capable of up to 25 knots. They have also further improved the individual safety equipment provided to all of their crew people. Crew recruiting and training

The RNLI has its headquarters at Poole in Dorset, England. The RNLI boats are crewed by more than 4,300 volunteers, all of whom were recruited in the immediate areas around the locations of the various lifeboat stations. Obviously, many stations have more than one boat. Each boat requires its own crew as well as alternates in case a person is sick or otherwise unavailable. While recruitment is done locally, training standards and final approval of crew assignments rest with the central administration in Poole. Anyone who wants to join a station must be physically fit, must not be color blind, and, if only 17, must have parents' permission. RNLI maintains a training center at its headquarters in Poole. Here the crews of all new all-weather boats are sent for a week of training before sailing their new boats back to their permanent stations. In addition, RNLI has its Inshore Lifeboat Center at legendary Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Here the crews of the smaller inflatables go for training during the summer; the crews of the larger inflatables go in winter. There they learn how the boats are constructed and practice all aspects of boat handling, including capsizing and righting. These training sessions usually include crews from three or four stations at once and continue for a week.

In addition to these training centers, RNLI also maintains a group of mobile training units that travel out to the various coastal lifeboat stations. These mobile units conduct classes in first aid, communications, navigation, and various related nautical skills. These units remain in a particular area for several weeks conducting courses. At the end of these courses successful students receive certificates of competence.

An extremely important part of the crew training is the regular exercises they conduct with their boats in the immediate areas where they will operate. In this way they become thoroughly familiar with the characteristics of the boat, with each other, and with important maritime details of the immediate area such as local currents and both normal and abnormal wind and sea conditions. In addition, this allows the senior members of the crew to pass on their experience and skills to the newer people.

Every six months or so one of the six RNLI Divisional Inspectors of Lifeboats visits each station for an inspector's exercise. Each inspector has a deputy. The inspectors concentrate on the stations with all-weather boats while the deputies deal with the inshore boats. Clearly, although the RNLI crews are unpaid volunteers, they are certainly as rigorously trained and supervised as the people in any comparable paid maritime service, and they certainly have a morale and esprit de corps that is without equal.

Dispatching a lifeboat

In Britain and Northern Ireland there is a branch of the United Kingdom government called the Coastguard Agency. The Coastguard is usually the first to hear of a maritime emergency. Either they pick up a Mayday broadcast or receive a call from a member of the public. If it appears that a lifeboat is needed, the Coastguard Agency contacts an officer called the "honorary secretary" of the lifeboat station nearest to the problem with a request that the boat be launched. Remember, the RNLI is a very independent volunteer organization. The government cannot order them out. They must first go through the formality of making a request. The honorary secretary then authorizes a launch and the crew people are alerted by phone or pager. They then go at once to the boat and launch it if the boat is ashore in the boat house, or just start up and get underway if the boat is moored afloat. While this request procedure sounds cumbersome, it is completed without delay.

Once a boat has been dispatched that vessel and its crew will stay with their assignment until it has been successfully completed regardless of how long it takes. Under adverse conditions the combined pull of two big all-weather lifeboats may be needed to tow a large disabled vessel to safety.

All of us who have spent time at sea have sooner or later had to deal with major emergencies. When one arises in the coastal waters of Great Britain, the RNLI has proven thousands of times over that these volunteers are not only ready, but they are fully equipped, trained, and able to be of substantial help in an emergency.