Meet the stationless lifeboats of the RNLI relief fleet

For generations, those in trouble at sea have relied upon the RNLI’s lifeboats and their crews. However, regular rescues and rough seas take their toll on the lifeboats, and it is essential that they receive regular maintenance and upgrades so that they can carry on saving lives. This means that they sometimes need to be away from the station for weeks at a time.

An RNLI lifeboat being transported via motorway

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

That's why we have a relief lifeboat fleet. On standby in strategic points around the UK and Ireland, the relief fleet is kept in a constant state of operational readiness to provide cover at all stations. The fleet of 34 all-weather lifeboats and 42 inshore lifeboats are ready to be sent, at any time, to any of our 237 lifeboat stations to seamlessly take over from the regular lifeboat and save lives in its absence.

At the time of writing (16 November 2015), the relief fleet are dotted around the UK and Irish coasts - from Stornoway to St Ives, Wicklow to Whitby - saving lives and rescuing people from the perils of the sea.

In 2015 alone, the relief fleet launched more than 600 times from over 80 stations around the coasts, rescuing struggling kayakers, stranded sailors and walkers cut off by the tide. The relief fleet exists to ensure that the RNLI provides constant cover and, because it does this so well, it often goes without notice.

‘A relief lifeboat is in every way as important as a station boat’

In January, Cullercoats’s regular B class Hylton Burdon was out for maintenance when three kayakers got into trouble. Stuck in force 4 winds, snowy squalls and choppy seas and in desperate need of help, they soon found out just how important the RNLI relief fleet is.

After getting the call that the kayakers were in danger, the Cullercoats crew jumped into the relief B class Alexander and rushed to the scene. On arrival, two of the kayakers were found struggling in a notoriously treacherous stretch of water, where the waves and backwash from the pier meet. In poor conditions and against the difficult sea, the crew managed to get to two of the casualties, one of whom had been in the water for 30 minutes, and get them to safety.

However, while they were rescuing the kayaker from the water, the third friend capsized and was pulled into this dangerous stretch of water. Reacting quickly, the crew managed to grab him and pull him aboard the relief B class before he got into too much danger.

In 2015, Cullercoats Lifeboat Station had two relief B class lifeboats – the Alexander and the Malcolm and Mona Bennet-Williams – so the crew are all too aware of the importance of the relief fleet. Lifeboat Operations Manager Frank Taylor says: ‘A relief lifeboat is in every way as important as a station boat.’

And it’s not just lifeboats that we provide relief for. In order to prevent any loss of service, we also provide relief coverage for other stages of a rescue. Full-time coxswains are sometimes called upon to take over duties at another station when the station's own coxswain is unavailable. Relief launch and recovery tractors and hovercraft are also ready and waiting to take over saving lives at sea. And, for the sake of four 10-year-old children stuck off of Mulberry Harbour last Summer, it’s lucky that they are.

Cold, distressed and stuck out at sea

The children were frantically struggling to get back to the shore after being caught in a current. Cold, distressed and powerless against the fury of the sea, they were in desperate need of help. The John Russell relief hovercraft arrived quickly on the scene and pulled them from danger.

The crew got the four children back to their parents, who had not realised they were missing, safely and with no injuries. As the report filed by the crew after the rescue says: ‘Four lives saved here – these children were not going to get back ashore without our intervention.’

Help keep the relief fleet afloat

This Christmas, we’re launching an appeal to raise enough money to add a new Shannon class lifeboat to the relief fleet. Swift and agile, this state-of-the-art lifeboat is exactly what our volunteers need to reach a casualty at a moment’s notice. With the SIMS electronic bridge system and self-righting capabilities, this lifeboat will keep our crews – at any Shannon station across the UK and Ireland – safe, even when their regular lifeboat is out of action.

Donate to the Christmas Shannon Appeal here.