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Royal National Lifeboat Institution

RNLI flag
Motto The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea
Formation 4 March 1824
Legal status charity
Purpose/focus The RNLI is the charity that saves lives at sea
Headquarters Poole
Region served United Kingdom
Budget £139 million (approximately £381,000 per day)

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a charity that saves lives at sea around the coasts of the British Isles, as well as inshore. It was founded on 4 March 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, adopting the present name in 1854. It now operates as an international service to the peoples of the UK and Ireland and has official charity status in each nation. The RNLI operates 444 lifeboats (332 are on station, 112 are in the relief fleet), from 235 lifeboat stations around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Since 1980, lifeboat rescues have doubled. The RNLI's lifeboats rescued an average of 21 people a day in 2008. RNLI lifeboats launched 8,293 times in 2008, rescuing 7,612 people. RNLI lifeguards placed on selected beaches around the South West, South, East and North of England as well as South Wales, aided 11,027 people. They saved 288 lives in 2008 alone, meaning the total figure indicating the number of lives saved by the RNLI since 1824 is 137,000. The RNLI Operations department defines 'rescues' and 'lives saved' differently. [1]

The charities lifeguards on beaches that are trained and equipped by the RNLI, operating in England and Wales are needed more than ever. Therefore, in 2009, the service was expanded to cover over 140 beaches.[2] RNLI Lifeguards are paid for by the appropriate town or city council for the area in which they serve, for the RNLI. This means that the RNLI can concentrate their money directly on saving lives as opposed to salaries. This is different to lifeboat crew members as all RNLI lifeboat crew members are volunteers and are therefore unpaid. The RNLI is funded entirely by voluntary donations and legacies (together with tax reclaims), and has an annual budget of £139 million (€144 million).



Memorial in Douglas, Isle of Man to one of RNLI's earliest rescues - rescuing the sailors off the St. George in 1830.

Sir William Hillary came to live on the Isle of Man in 1808. Being aware of the treacherous nature of the Irish Sea, with many ships being wrecked around the Manx coast, he drew up plans for a national lifeboat service manned by trained crews. Initially he received little response from the Admiralty but on appealing to the more philanthropic members of London society, the plans were adopted with the help of two members of parliament - Thomas Wilson and George Hibbert - the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was founded in 1824.

Thirty years later the title changed to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the first of the new lifeboats to be built was stationed at Douglas in recognition of the work of Sir William.

At the age of 60 Sir William took part in the rescue, in 1830, of the packet St George, which had foundered on Conister Rock at the entrance to Douglas harbour. He commanded the lifeboat and was washed overboard with others of the lifeboat crew, yet finally everyone aboard the St George was rescued with no loss of life. It was this incident which prompted Sir William to set up a scheme to build The Tower of Refuge on Conister Rock - a project completed in 1832 which stands to this day at the entrance to Douglas Harbour.[3]

In its first year, the RNLI added 12 boats to the existing 39 independent lifeboats.[4] By 1908 there were 280 RNLI lifeboats and 17 independents.

In action

An RNLI Atlantic 21 Class Lifeboat, leaving Poole Harbour, Poole, Dorset. The Atlantic 21 Class Lifeboats are now only used for training purposes. None are operational at any lifeboat station.
Severn class lifeboat, Poole Harbour, Dorset. This is the largest class of UK lifeboat, at 17 metres long

Since the RNLI was founded, its lifeboats have saved over 137,000 lives (as of November 2006).[5]

The RNLI operates three classes of inshore lifeboats, both inflatable boats and RIBs, of 25-40 knots, and five classes of all-weather motor life boats, with another (FCB2) currently in development, with speeds ranging from 17 to 25 knots. It maintains 332 lifeboats based at 235 lifeboat stations. It also has four hovercraft, introduced in 2002, allowing rescue on mud flats and in river estuaries inaccessible to conventional boats. The crews of the lifeboats are almost entirely volunteers. The 4,600 boat crew members, including over 300 women, are alerted by pagers and attend the lifeboat station when alerted.

Weston-super-Mare Lifeboat Station, has the longest lifeboat slipway in the country. However, due to the age of the slipway, it is now not used, and the two lifeboats stationed there are launched from the other side of the pier, down the beach.

The Humber lifeboat station at Spurn Point, East Riding of Yorkshire is one of only four lifeboat stations in the UK which are crewed full time (the others being Tower Lifeboat Station at Waterloo Bridge,Chiswick Station and the Gravesend, Kent Station, all on the River Thames). The crew live in a few houses on Spurn Point which in bad weather can be cut off from the mainland. The other occupants of Spurn Point are Associated British Ports who man their Vessel Traffic Service control tower 24 hours a day, 365 days a year along with the lifeboat crew.

Throughout Ireland and Great Britain, ships in distress or the public reporting an accident must contact the Emergency services:

The call will then be redirected to HM Coastguard or the Irish Coast Guard, as appropriate.

The Coastguard co-ordinates air-sea rescue and may call on the RNLI (or other lifeboats) or their own land-based rescue personnel or rescue helicopters to take part. Air-Sea rescue helicopters are provided by the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, the Marine & Coastguard Agency (HM Coastguard), and the Irish Air Corps.

The biggest rescue in the RNLI's history was 17 March 1907 when the 12,000 tonne liner SS Suevic hit the Maenheere Reef near Lizard Point in Cornwall. In a strong gale and dense fog RNLI lifeboat volunteers rescued 456 passengers, including 70 babies. Crews from The Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven rowed out repeatedly for 16 hours to rescue all of the people on board. Six silver RNLI medals were later awarded, two to Suevic crew members.[6]


The RNLI station, at Beaumaris, Anglesey, Wales

Main category: Classes of RNLI lifeboats.

The RNLI has two main categories of lifeboat:

  • All weather boats - Large boats that are capable of high speed in extreme weather conditions and have a large range.
  • Inshore lifeboats - Smaller boats that operate closer to the shore than all weather boats and are able to operate in shallower waters and closer to cliffs.


Over the years, many members of boat and launching crews have been killed during or died as a result of lifeboat operations.

  • 1821 - Sandycove while assisting the brig Ellen of Liverpool. Four volunteer lifeboatmen drowned (pre-RNLI)
  • 1859 - Aldeburgh lifeboat capsized on service in December with the loss of 3 of her crew of 15.
  • 1871 - Bridlington lifeboat RNLB Harbinger was lost with six lives in the Great Gale of 1871.
  • 1880 - The Wells-next-the-Sea lifeboat Eliza Adams went to the aid of the stricken brig Ocean Queen in heavy seas. The lifeboat capsized and 11 of her 13 crew were drowned. (See Wells lifeboat disaster).
  • 1885 - Caister Lifeboat, the yawl "Zephyr" struck a sunken wreck as she responded to a distress call from a schooner on the Barber Sands. 8 of the 15 crewmen were lost: John Burton, Joseph Sutton, George Hodds, Frederick Haylett, Joseph Haylett, John Riches, James King & William Knowles.
  • 1886 - St Anne's, Lytham and Southport lifeboats went to the assistance of a German barque, the Mexico in trouble in heavy seas. The St Anne's and Southport boats were lost with 27 lifeboatmen. (See Southport and St Anne's lifeboats disaster).
  • 1895 - Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) lifeboat was capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the stricken SS Palme. All fifteen lifeboatmen were lost. (See Kingstown Lifeboat Disaster).
  • 1899 - Aldeburgh The lifeboat "Aldeburgh" capsized with the loss of seven of the eighteen man crew.
  • 1901 - Nine members of the Caister-on-Sea lifeboat were drowned when their lifeboat Beauchamp overturned in heavy seas. Asked why they had persisted in their rescue attempts the retired coxswain was reported as saying "Caister men never turn back". (see 1901 Caister Lifeboat Disaster).
  • 1914 - Nine members of the crew of the Fethard-on-Sea lifeboat crew were drowned when their boat capsized. They were attempting to reach the stricken steamer Mexico which was going down off the Co Wexford coast.
  • 1928 - The Rye Harbour lifeboat disaster, in which the Mary Stanford was capsized and 17 men lost their lives.
  • 1947 - 8 crew of the Mumbles lifeboat died attempting to rescue the crew of SS Samtampa off south Wales, on 23 April 1947. A total of 45 lives were lost.
  • 1953 - On 9 February six crew of the Fraserburgh lifeboat lost their lives when the lifeboat capsized whilst escorting fishing boats into the harbour.
  • 1953 - six of the seven crew of the Arbroath lifeboat Robert Lindsay drowned when the boat capsized outside Arbroath Harbour just before dawn on 27 October 1953.
  • 1959 - All 8 crew of the Broughty Ferry lifeboat Mona died while attempting to rescue the North Carr lightship
  • 1962 - After rescuing the five crew members of the Coble Economy on the 17 November, the Seaham lifeboat capsized on its way back to the shore. All five lifeboat crewmen died, only one crewman from the Economy survived.
  • 1969 - On 17 March, the Longhope lifeboat - the T.G.B. - went to the aid of the Liberian vessel Irene. The lifeboat capsized with the loss of her entire crew of eight.
  • 1970 - On 21 January, the Fraserburgh lifeboat - the Dutchess of Kent, while on service to the Danish fishing vessel Opal, capsized with the loss of five of her crew of six
  • 1981 - The Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne was lost, with all eight crew, going to the aid of the freighter Union Star. A total of 16 lives were lost - there were no survivors and only 8 bodies were recovered. (See Penlee lifeboat disaster).

Roll of honour

Lifeboat crewmen have been awarded medals for their bravery. The RNLI awards three classes of medal; Gold, Silver and Bronze. To date the number of medals awarded are:

  • Gold: 150
  • Silver: 1564
  • Bronze: 793 (Bronze only issued since 1917).

One of the most notable recipients is Henry Blogg, of the Cromer lifeboat crew, who was awarded the RNLI gold medal three times (and the Silver four times). He also received the George Cross and the British Empire Medal. He is known as "The Greatest of all Lifeboatmen".

The youngest recipient of an RNLI medal was eleven-year-old Frederick Carter who, along with sixteen-year-old Frank Perry, was awarded a Silver Medal for a rescue at Weymouth in 1890.

The Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum is also given for notable acts.

One lifeboat received an award. For the Daunt lightship rescue in 1936, the RNLB Mary Stanford and her entire crew were decorated.[7]

When Grace Darling was 22 years old when she risked her life in an open boat to help the survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire on 7 September 1838. With her father, she rowed for over a mile through raging seas to reach them.[8]

Famous lifeboat-saviours


The Lifeboat College, Poole

The headquarters of the RNLI are in Poole, Dorset. The RNLI site is located adjacent to the Holes Bay in Poole Harbour. It includes RNLI HQ, lifeboat maintenance and repair facilities, the Lifeboat Support Centre and the National Training Centre, the Lifeboat College. The support centre and college were opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004.[9] Specialist training facilities include a wave and capsize pool, a fire simulator, a bridge simulator and a live engineering workshop.[10]

See also



External links

Video clips


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