The Need For Speed
Classic Boat|March 2021
Saving lives at sea has always been bound to the speed of rescue, from the first rowing boats to the 60-knot, all-weather motorboats of today
Dag Pike

When someone is drowning out at sea there is always a need for speed but there are so many aspects to rescue at sea. Anyone going to the rescue has to first of all get to the wreck and then when they have rescued the survivors they have to get safely back to the shore. It is a delicate balance and in the past the need to survive has always taken precedence over the speed factor.

Two centuries ago, trade by sea was at its height but relied on sailing ships which in turn relied on the wind. Too little wind and they could be in trouble close to the shore. Too much wind and they could also be in trouble close to the shore and for the watchers on the shore, there was little they could do to help. At best they went to help in their working boats under oars or sail which was a brave but highly risky approach; but you can’t just stand on the shore and watch.

ARRIVAL OF THE SURF BOATS

Eventually it was realised that rescue at sea needed a dedicated type of vessel designed to the highest levels of seaworthiness then available. Many of these had to operate from open beaches like their fishing fleets and so the surf rescue boat was born. High at the ends with a pronounced sheerline and buoyancy to keep it afloat even when flooded, the crews would fight their way through the surf to go to the aid of the vessel in distress.

These surf boats were provided locally and later they became organised into national institutions, mainly manned by volunteers using dedicated lifeboats, designed to the highest standards then available. If you look at early lifeboat design there is a surprising similarity in the designs around the world; high ends, perhaps with buoyancy around the gunwale to give added stability and maybe with buoyancy boxes incorporated at the high ends to give the boats a self-righting capability. Oars were the primary means of propulsion with sails added to for use when the wind and course allowed. That style of traditional lifeboat lasted up until the start of the 19th century, but technology was changing and lifeboat design had to follow.

1890: THE FIRST STEAM LIFEBOAT

The advent of steam power for ships prompted what was probably the most significant change in lifeboat design ever for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). In 1890 a steam-powered lifeboat was developed, and with it what was probably the first waterjet-propelled boat. Six of these steam boats were built and remained in service for over 40 years but steam power had an obvious disadvantage in the time needed to raise a head of steam before setting out but replacing the frailty of oars and sails in stormy weather was an obvious advantage and these steam lifeboats paved the way for petrol and diesel-powered lifeboats.

Early in the 1900s, the first petrol engine-driven lifeboats were built. At that time there was some uncertainty about the reliability of using petrol engines which were still in their infancy, so the traditional double-ended design was retained as were oars and sails. The first motor lifeboat in the USA was introduced in 1899 and the RNLI followed suit in 1905 with other European lifeboats making the change at around the same time.

So the pattern was set for the next 60 years with the only major change being the switch from petrol to diesel. 1930 saw a radical change in lifeboat design with the first lifeboat built that was faster than displacement speeds. Unreliable aircraft were ditching in the Dover Straits so the RNLI had a boat designed and built by Thornycrofts with a pair of 375hp petrol engines and 18-knot capability, twice the speed of conventional lifeboats and in addition to her pioneering speed, she was the first lifeboat to have an enclosed wheelhouse.

1960S: THE LIVERPOOL CLASS

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