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The power behind the launch

Manpower and horsepower. That’s what we used to rely on to launch our lifeboats.

RNLI Exmouth Shannon lifeboat on a launch and recovery exercise

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

On a stormy night in January 1899, it took 20 men and 18 horses 11 hours to haul the 10-tonne Lynmouth lifeboat, Louisa, 13 miles overland to a safer place to launch at Porlock Weir.

This remains one of our most arduous feats today and resulted in the rescue of all 18 crew members onboard the stricken ship Forrest Hall.

A different kind of horsepower

Fast forward 116 years to today, and we’re using horsepower of a very different kind.

This is our latest innovation in launch and recovery tractors.

It was designed for the Shannon – our newest and most agile class of all-weather lifeboat – and together they are revolutionising the way we save lives at sea.

When a powerboat started sinking in Lyme Bay on 12 April, the four people onboard found themselves in the water, perilously close to drowning, with just one lifejacket between them.

Exmouth lifeboat crew were on the scene within minutes and rescued all four people, thanks to the speed and efficiency of their Shannon, R and J Welburn, and her launch and recovery system.

Speaking about the first lives saved using their latest lifesaving equipment, Exmouth Tractor Driver Neil Cannon says:

‘That was the first shout I can truly say that the reduced time of launching the lifeboat with this impressive system really made a difference to saving lives. I certainly felt like I did something special that day.’

So what sets this system apart?

The launch and recovery system acts like a mobile slipway for the Shannon, which can be driven directly onto the beach for recovery, making both ideal for our lifeboat stations without harbours, slipways or davit systems.

Weighing in at 37 tonnes, this impressive piece of kit can carry an 18-tonne Shannon over all kinds of beach terrain, from steep shelving shingle to wet, sticky sand.

It can drive straight into big surf and safely launch the lifeboat in up to 2.4m of water. Not only that, in the event of breakdown with an incoming tide, the watertight tractor can be completely submerged in depths of up to 9m before being retrieved once the tide has receded.

In calm conditions, the tractor doesn’t even have to get wet. Its hydraulic carriage tilts 7 degrees downwards, allowing the lifeboat to run down the slope into the water.

The lifeboat is launched at the touch of a button and the whole system requires less manual handling by shore crew volunteers, making for a safer and more efficient launch and recovery.

Now for the really clever bit …

When it’s time to recover the beached lifeboat bow first onto the tractor’s unique turntable cradle, it can rotate the lifeboat 180º, ready to be launched again within 10 minutes.

This is 150% faster than its predecessor – the launch and recovery system for our Mersey class all-weather lifeboat – which takes an average of 25 minutes.

With its 450hp engine, it can tow the lifeboat to the tideline 43% faster too – at 10mph compared to 7mph.

Every second can mean the difference between life and death when there’s an emergency at sea. And RNLI engineers worked closely with Supacat Ltd in the bespoke design of this state-of-the-art launch and recovery system to shave every second they could.

Finishing touches …

  • Bigger windows and CCTV give our volunteer tractor drivers much better visibility.
  • The driver can face forwards or backwards on a 180º rotating seat.
  • A second seat in the cab makes training easier and safer.
  • And hydraulic motors mean the height of the whole rig can be reduced to fit inside boathouses, negating the need for extensive building works.

From the field to the beach

But how did we even get to this amazing feat of engineering? How did we get the tractor from the field to the beach?

Rewind 95 years to 1920.

Farm horses were being replaced by agricultural tractors.

Most lifeboat-launching horses were hired from farmers so this meant fewer horses were available.

In the May 1920 edition of The Life-Boat Journal, RNLI Chief Inspector of Lifeboats, Captain Howard F.J. Rowley CBE RN, explains:

‘It is becoming increasingly hard to get the use of horses and the men to manage them, and they have frequently to be brought long distances, with consequent delay, and the cost of hiring is rapidly becoming prohibitive.

‘If we can find a mechanical means for launching, and get rid of this uncertain element, we shall greatly increase the efficiency, certainty and speed of the Service.’

Breaking new ground

And that’s exactly what Captain Rowley and the RNLI Committee of Management set out to do.

The first caterpillar tractor trials took place earlier that year in March at Hunstanton in Norfolk to see if the agricultural vehicles could be adapted for beach launching.

Hunstanton was chosen for its variety of beach terrain and the 3-tonne Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor, with a 35hp petrol engine and 14-inch caterpillar tracks, was put through its paces over the flat sand, sand dunes and uneven rocky ground.

Trials …

The trials were successful and the tractor towed the Hunstanton lifeboat and carriage, which had a combined weight of 7½ tonnes, with ease, even at its top speed of 6mph.

Captain Rowley, who was present at the trials, said:

‘Every conceivable form of trial was made, and a launch was successfully carried out on the steep part of the beach, over a distance of about 200 yards in seven minutes, with the full crew and only four helpers.

‘Under ordinary conditions such a launch would require eight or 10 horses and as many helpers.’

And tribulations …

Unfortunately the tractor did not cope so well in deep shingle.

When the trials were continued 3 miles away at Heacham, the tractor fared well on its own. But when drawing the Hunstanton lifeboat and carriage up a 1 in 8 shingle gradient, the tractor’s tracks couldn’t grip and it just dug itself into the shingle.

Further trials were carried out at Worthing’s shingle beach in West Sussex with the same result.

Captain Rowley’s summation of the trials in The Life-Boat Journal read:

‘There are a number of Stations with beaches well suited to the tractor, and where her use will mean economy in labour, the elimination of the uncertainty and delays which result from the present dependence on horses, and much prompter launches – in a word a more efficient service and a better chance of saving life.’

Modifications were made to make the Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor ‘seaworthy’ and the first launch and recovery tractor went on service at Hunstanton Lifeboat Station in 1921.

A new era in lifesaving at sea

And so began a new era in launching and recovering lifeboats.

By 1927, we were experimenting with a much larger four-wheel drive tractor to see if it was powerful enough to cope with launching over shingle and soft, cloying mud. Success!

Designed in conjunction with the Four Wheel Drive Lorry Company (FWD), the tractor and its special carriage weighed 11½ tonnes and were fitted with a roadless traction creeper track, enabling the tractor to handle all kinds of beach conditions.

It was powered by a watertight 60hp four-cylinder petrol engine, with four forward and two reverse gears and a top speed of 12mph.

This beast of a tractor had an impressive drawbar pull of 7.5 tonnes and carried a winding drum with a steel wire rope, which helped to haul the lifeboat off its carriage once it was in deep enough water.

At almost £4,000 a piece – £218,000 in today’s money – only four of these FWD tractors were made.

HRH Princess Victoria formally christened the first of them on 10 June 1927 – the first tractor ever to be named. And in 1928, the Princess Victoria went on to serve Hoylake for 12 months before being transferred to Clogher Head, where she served until 1951.

And the end of an era too

The introduction of tractors also marked the end of an era in lifeboat launch and recovery.

For over a century, horses played a crucial part in saving thousands of lives at sea and were an iconic sight to see as they pulled lifeboats through streets and over beaches.

So for some their gradual demise in launching and recovering lifeboats was tinged with sadness.

The last team of horses at Wells-next-the-Sea were finally stood down on 11 February 1936 when the station’s pulling and sailing lifeboat, the Baltic, was replaced by Royal Silver Jubilee – a motorised lifeboat launched and recovered by a caterpillar tractor.

In a tribute to the lifesaving contribution of these magnificent beasts, the December 1936 edition of The Life-Boat Journal read:

‘Thus passes away one of the most familiar and spectacular features of life-boat work, a feature at one time as familiar as the horses of the old fire-brigades.

‘The change has added to the efficiency of the service, but it has taken from it something of its picturesqueness.

‘Those who saw the race for the boat-house, and the team of four, six or eight horses taking the boat into the sea, will not easily forget what a fine sight it was.’

Investing ‘money, technology and ingenuity’

Our quest to make our lifesaving service more efficient never ends.

Since this milestone in our lifesaving history, we have worked with a variety of specialist tractor companies to improve and develop our lifeboat launch and recovery vehicles. Today we have around 15 different types in our fleet to meet the varying needs of our lifeboat stations and lifeboats as we move to standardise our kit to make it easier and more cost-effective to maintain.

RNLI Lead Machinery Specialist and Trainer Mark Perry spends much of his time on the coast teaching our volunteer tractor drivers how to operate these remarkable pieces of lifesaving kit. Mark says:

‘Whilst carrying out my role delivering training for the RNLI’s launch and recovery equipment, it astounds me how much engineering and technology is continually being invested into our machinery.

‘When you witness the crews of today recover a lifeboat first-hand, it shows just how far we have come from the days of horses and wives doing the work.

‘Without doubt, technology has reduced lifeboat launch and recovery times dramatically, meaning our volunteer crews get to spend more time with their families.

‘Recently I was approached by a member of public in Ilfracombe whilst training the crew on their new Shannon launch and recovery system and I think he summed it up with one sentence: “What an incredible race mankind is to invest all this money, technology and ingenuity for the saving of another’s life.”’

The cost of lifesaving at sea

And that includes you. It’s thanks to your incredibly generous support that we’re able to invest money, in-house expertise and ingenuity into saving lives at sea.

Lifesaving kit like the Shannon’s launch and recovery equipment comes at a price - £1.5M to be exact. This is on top of the £2.1M cost of a Shannon class lifeboat.

And with over 50% of our Shannons currently in service launching from a beach rather than a slipway or from afloat, it all soon adds up, especially when 94% of our income comes from donations.

Saving a life is priceless and makes every penny worthwhile. And with your continued support, we will continue to innovate and improve our rescue service.

Respect the Water – don’t let the sea cost you your life

But we’re not just a rescue service. We save countless of lives through our safety messages and education work too. Just not enough.

More than 160 people die every year around the UK coast – around half of them didn’t even plan to go into the water. And a further 60 people die in Ireland’s waterways.

British and Irish waters are dangerously unpredictable. That’s why we’re asking you to do one thing – Respect the Water – not only this Summer but all year round.

It won’t cost you anything, but it could save your life.

Lifeboats are launched and recovered to great effect in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.