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1880: Zetland’s final launch 

Built in 1802, the Zetland is the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world and saved over 500 lives during her service.

The oldest surviving lifeboat, the Zetland, at Redcar in 1802
The oldest surviving lifeboat, the Zetland, at Redcar in 1802

The Zetland was built in 1802 and served for 78 years before being retired. She is currently the oldest surviving lifeboat in the world and saved over 500 lives during her service.

She was the 11th of 31 lifeboats made by the pioneering lifeboat builder Henry Greathead. The vessel was purchased by the people of Redcar and named after the Marquess of Zetland, the local Lord of the Manor.

The Zetland is a clinker-built, doubled-ended rowing boat, 9.15m long with a 3.1m beam. She required 13 crew members, although she could carry 20 in severe weather.

The lifeboat was kept in a boathouse close to the beach and launched with aid of a wheeled carriage. She was hauled over beach to the sea by the locals and sometimes by a team of horses from the local farm. When the lifeboat was needed, the crew was called out by a local boy parading the streets with a drum.

The Zetland’s rescues

On Christmas Day in 1836, the Zetland was launched to rescue the crew from the Caroline, a Danish tug. During the rescue attempt, one of the crewmen, William Guy, was washed overboard and drowned. This was the only crew death in their lifeboat’s long history. The Zetland was then swept ashore, unable to relaunch and tragically, the crew of the Caroline drowned.

A remarkable rescue took place in 1854, when the Jane Erskine ran aground off Redcar. Several local fishermen went out on their cobles to refloat her, but ran into trouble when the weather worsened.
The Zetland launched, saving every member of the crew and the 26 fishermen, carrying 52 people in all.

Four years later, Tees Bay Lifeboat and Shipwreck Society handed over the administration of the Zetland to the RNLI.

Out of service

After sustaining damage whilst rescuing a crew from the brig Brothers in 1864, the Zetland was considered no longer fit for service. The RNLI supplied Redcar with a new self-righting lifeboat named Crossley.

The Zetland was due to be broken up, an idea that was met with anger from the local townspeople. After negotiation, the boat was given to the locals under the condition it wouldn’t compete with the Crossley.

The people of Redcar fundraised £100 to get the Zetland repaired, which was eventually completed in South Shields in 1872. Five years later, the Friendly Society of the United Free Gardens (UFG) offered to build Redcar a lifeboat to use alongside the RNLI’s Crossley, which they named Emma. The Crossley and her replacement, Burton-on-Trent, were unpopular with the crew.

The final launch

On 29 October 1880, in squally winds, a schooner, Luna, struck Redcar pier and broke in half. Emma and Burton-on-Trent were both out of action, having rescued crew members from two other vessels in distress.

The Zetland made her final heroic launch and successfully rescued Luna’s seven sailors. The crew was awarded £100 from the RNLI for their heroic actions.

The Zetland is currently preserved at the Zetland Lifeboat Museum in Redcar as the oldest lifeboat in the world.

Redcar crew lined up in front of their lifeboat, Emma. Circa. 1877.
Redcar crew and their lifeboat, Emma. Circa 1877.