1972: Rigid inflatable lifeboats

Research in the 1960s produced the RNLI’s first rigid inflatable lifeboat, the B class Atlantic 21, allowing more agile rescues closer to shore.
RNLI's first rigid inflatable lifeboat
The B class Atlantic 21 lifeboat

Around the mid-1960s, a growing need for fast, durable and manoeuvrable rescue vessels was met by the development of rigid inflatable boats (RIBs). These small and agile crafts revolutionised the leisure, commercial and military boat market, eventually giving the RNLI its B class Atlantic 21 lifeboat. 

The Atlantic 21 served the shores of the UK and Ireland between 1972 and 2006. These 7.21m, 32-knot vessels were the first generation of RIBs, developed initially at Atlantic College in south Wales. 

Fast, manoeuvrable and reliable, the B class series, to which these boats belong, later went on to include the Atlantic 75 (introduced in 1993) and the Atlantic 85 (introduced in 2005), named for their respective lengths of about 7.5m and 8.5m. 

Due to their size and agility, B class lifeboats are able to operate closer to shore than all-weather lifeboats, in shallower water, close to cliffs, among rocks and even in coastal caves.

Development of the boat 

Sources disagree but it’s likely that the first commercial RIB was Avon Rubber PLC’s Searider. This was introduced to the public at the January 1969 London Boat Show, the same year the RIB Psychedelic Surfer finished the Round Britain Powerboat Race (and emerged in decent working order). 

However the origins of the Atlantic 21 are thought to stem from 1964, when Rear Admiral Desmond Hoare and students at Atlantic College replaced the torn bottom of their 3.7m sailing club inflatable boat with a plywood sheet glued to the inflatable tubes. 

This was a successful modification, but users found the flat, rigid bottom created an uncomfortable journey at high speeds – a redesign of the floor was needed.

In The Complete RIB Manual, author Dag Pike writes: ‘They persevered with the concept of a fully rigid hull bottom, introducing a V-shaped cross section at the bow with the plywood section tapering aft to a flat profile … the suggestion was made to design a deep vee hull that would fit into the inflatable tube. It would have sufficient depth to insert strong longitudinal stringers, ensuring the hull was strong enough to take the strain. This development resulted in the first working RIB with the hull form we know and love today.’ 

By 1966 the students had built a further five RIBs, with financial support from the RNLI. They were taken for lifeboat trials at Great Yarmouth and Gorleston, returning to Atlantic College in Spring 1967 for further work. 

Development and modification was transferred to the RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre in Cowes, and the Atlantic 21 class of inshore lifeboats entered service 5 years later.