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A home for 21st-century lifeboats

Courageous II hit rocks just before 5am on 29 April 2013. The converted fishing boat was holed, grounded and disintegrating as her four-strong crew called in a mayday and gathered to wait for rescue.

The All-weather Lifeboat Centre being built at Poole

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

It took Padstow lifeboat crew, onboard Spirit of Padstow, just 12 minutes to reach them. Lifeboat Mechanic Michael England recalls: ‘This was a very speedy rescue as the four men were in immediate danger with the boat literally breaking up under their feet. Fortunately, thanks to Coxswain Alan Tarby’s skilful boathandling in very shallow water, we were able to get them off the boat and ashore in minutes and they were all well.’

Nick-of-time rescues like this show how much of a lifesaver speed can be. Spirit of Padstow is a Tamar class lifeboat, one of our newer classes, with a top speed of 25 knots. When lives are on the line, speed counts. That’s why we want the entire RNLI lifeboat fleet to be capable of 25 knots by 2019. And to ensure that we meet that target, we’re bringing lifeboat building home.

A 25-knot fleet

The All-weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole, Dorset, is where we’ll build and maintain the 25-knot lifeboats of the future.

And after 18 months of construction, a £5M public appeal, 750 tonnes of steelwork and 90km of electrical cable, we’re nearly ready to start moving in.

What will happen in the centre?

Lifeboat building: We will build six Shannon-class all-weather lifeboats a year for the next 7 years, to replace slower and older lifeboats. Currently, the hulls for these lifeboats are built by RNLI subsidiary SAR Composites in Lymington, Hampshire. The boats are then fitted out at commercial boatyards.

By 2019, the RNLI’s own boatbuilders and technicians will build all of our all-weather lifeboats, from moulding the hull to attaching the windscreen wipers, at the All-weather Lifeboat Centre.

Lifeboat refit: After 25 years of service, each Shannon class lifeboat will undergo a total refit. The strong composite hull will still have plenty life in it, but the engines, machinery, systems and equipment will need to be updated or replaced, creating a new Shannon class lifeboat ready to save lives at sea for a further 25 years.

Lifeboat maintenance: It’s hard out there for an all-weather lifeboat. Working at close quarters with casualty vessels in heavy rolling seas, taking on conditions that would see most mariners taking shelter in the pub, these boats need a regular dose of TLC.

All-weather lifeboats are currently maintained on station, in local boatyards, and at the Lifeboat Maintenance Centre in Poole, depending on what needs to be done. The kind of work now done in Poole will be carried out at the All-weather Lifeboat Centre.

And what won’t happen in the centre?

Inshore lifeboats: the smaller inflatable and rigid inflatable lifeboats that work closer to shore in calmer conditions – will be built and maintained at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre in East Cowes, Isle of Wight, as they have been for decades.

Why build our own lifeboats?

We’re going to build our own boats because it’s efficient, it’s cost effective … and because we can.

Chris Eves worked on the development of the Shannon class lifeboat. He’s now Manufacturing Manager at the All-weather Lifeboat Centre, and looking forward to getting started there.

He explains the reasoning behind the project: ‘The All-weather Lifeboat Centre will allow the RNLI to govern its own destiny. In future there will be fewer suppliers who can meet our specialist requirements. So, as well as mitigating the risk within our lifeboat building supply chain, the new facility will give us greater control over our quality and costs.

‘By bringing all-weather lifeboat building in house and capitalising on the expertise within the organisation we will be able to save at least £3M each year once fully up and running.’

Innovation at work: Sustainability

Building and maintaining our all-weather lifeboats under one roof, within walking distance of the rest of RNLI Headquarters, will save money and time. We’ve worked with other organisations to make sure we get the flow right, and this sheer efficiency will save on overheads, materials storage and transport. Our 25-knot fleet will be looked after in a facility as modern as they are.

But it’s not just about saving money and using the latest kit. The All-weather Lifeboat Centre will be a major employer in Poole, part of the community, an innovation that lives on. And we’ve put sustainability at the heart of the project from the outset:

  • Before we started work on the building, we raised the level of the site by 1.4m and strengthened sea defences, with an eye to the danger of future flooding. The material used to raise the site level was sourced locally and brought in by barge, reducing our carbon footprint.
  • 20% of the power the building needs will come from renewable energy sources and low and zero-carbon technologies. An 850m2 solar panel array on the roof will pay for itself in 9 years, while saving 52 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
  • Piling operations began with low-intensity vibration to allow fish to move away from the area. We’ve worked with Natural England to monitor the effects of the construction site on local bird populations.
  • Before work even begins on site, we’re looking at ways to limit and manage waste. From cardboard baling to a large project (partially EU-funded) on what to do with all-weather lifeboats once they come to the end of their RNLI lives, we are investing in responsible production.

Let's get it started

We hope to start lifeboat maintenance at the All-weather Lifeboat Centre in April 2015. Production Engineer Daniel Sharp, who also worked on the development of the Shannon class lifeboat, can't wait: 'There is a lot of excitement. In a way, it is similar to the Shannon build process - we started with a completely blank canvas, and we knew what we needed, but we didn't know what the finished lifeboat would be like.

'We have an opportunity here to build lifeboats better than ever before, so it is very exciting.'

Support the building of the All-weather Lifeboat Centre. Donate to the Lifeboat Building appeal.