Inside the Inshore Lifeboat Centre

The story behind the place and the people responsible for building our inshore lifeboat fleet.
The RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC) in Cowes

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Imagine being on the crew, heading out into rough seas. Being able to trust in your lifeboat is vitally important to you. You have to know that you can rely on the vessel to do what you need it to do – it can be the difference between life and death.

For 50 years the RNLI has been building lifeboats the crew can trust at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre, at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

The inshore fleet

Inshore lifeboats play a vital role in the RNLI’s lifesaving operation. In 2018, approximately 70% of lifeboat launches were by inshore lifeboats, launching over 6,000 times and helping more than 5,600 people.

Being able to work in shallow waters and navigate the often treacherous stretches of the British and Irish coastline means our crews can reach more people in peril. Our lifesavers count on the D class and B class inshore lifeboats – the workhorses of the RNLI fleet – and the E class lifeboats on the Thames. Our all-weather lifeboat crews rely on the inflatable Y boats they carry onboard and our lifeguards on their inshore rescue boats.

All our inshore lifeboats are exposed to tough conditions. While they are built to last, wear and tear is inevitable. When the rigid inflatables were first introduced in the 1960s, they needed far more specialised repairs than previous lifeboats.

There became a need for a more specialist, permanent facility, to help keep the fleet operational.

Early lifeboat self-righting trials at Cowes

Photo: The Beken Project

Early lifeboat self-righting trials at Cowes

Location, location, location

Lifeboat building has been a feature on the Isle of Wight since the start of the 20th century, where famous shipbuilders like Samuel White’s and Groves and Guttridge would build, launch and trial lifeboats in the waters around East Cowes. 

The RNLI appointed surveyors and overseers to watch over production, ensuring that the lifeboats built met the specifications and standards they and our lifeboat crews expected. An office was established in Cowes in the 1930s, to house these staff and store the patterns, equipment, drawings and records.

Inflating a D class lifeboat at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC)

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Inflating a D class lifeboat at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC)

A new addition

It was the launch of the D class in 1963 that meant the charity needed a permanent facility. When the first D classes joined the fleet, their manoeuvrability made them a welcome addition, and their use expanded rapidly across the lifeboat station network.

However, their (at the time) specialised design meant there needed to be a facility to provide the professional servicing and maintenance the lifeboats required. The site became known as ‘Cowes Base’.

The RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC) in Cowes

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Inshore lifeboat talent

A facility is only as good as the people who work there. Today, a team of 70 work together to produce, repair and maintain the inshore lifeboat fleet. It takes 2,600 hours to build a brand new B class lifeboat.

The team consists of highly skilled boatbuilders, fitters, electricians and solutionists who work together to build and maintain up to 50 lifeboats each year. They are supported by administration and stores teams, who help to keep the production line moving efficiently. The next generation of lifeboat builders are also trained here, with apprentices gaining invaluable hands-on experience of working in a busy environment where attention to detail is a must.

The Inshore Lifeboat Centre brings people together from all walks of life. While many will join from a more traditional background such as a college course, an apprenticeship or another shipyard, some take a different route. 

Nicky Stokes, who is now a senior manager, joined as a solutionist 24 years ago. The role of solutionist is one of the more unique roles at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre. ‘Solutionists work with rubber and materials,’ explains Nicky. ‘You have to be quite arty as you follow drawings, cut out patterns and have a real finesse.’

Working in the Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC)

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

With your support the team builds lifeboats to a high standard

Top team

Today, the Inshore Lifeboat Centre continues to play a vital role. Not just because of the lifeboats it builds, although that is a key factor. But what it represents. A team of people working hard to make sure lifeboat crews have what they need to save lives at sea.

They are one link in the lifesaving chain. And they’re connected to you – they couldn’t do it without your support. Your help keeps the Inshore Lifeboat Centre up and running, so that our fleet of hardworking inshore lifeboats can continue to save lives at sea. 

Profile: Nicky Stokes

Nicky Stokes, Inshore Lifeboat Centre

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Nicky has been working at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre for almost 24 years. Starting off as a solutionist, she has worked her way up to senior manager level.

What’s your role now? 

I look after the D class lifeboats – new builds and refits, the solutionist workshop (components), engine workshop and the stores. So I’ve got four different heads on!

The engine workshop covers all coastal repairs and new inversion-proof engines, along with refit engines. The stores is the heart of the site ensuring all the kits/parts are delivered on time to the production lines, RNLI Support Centre, Poole, or direct to the station if it’s needed urgently.

What inspired you to join the RNLI?

I used to work in the local pub where the crew training staff went for their lunch. I got chatting to one of the guys and was fascinated by everything RNLI. He said to me next time there’s a job coming up he’d let me know. So I came in for an interview and I’ve not looked back.

What are you most proud of?

It’s when the donors come to see the lifeboat they’ve funded. It’s a proud moment when I hear the boat has been named after a family member or friend and the donors tell me why they support us. The look on their faces when they see their finished lifeboat is very special.

Profile: Glyn Ellis MBE

Glyn Ellis, Inshore Lifeboat Centre

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Glyn is Operations Manager at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre and has been working here for 21 years.

What does your role involve?

Managing the whole site – from everyday activity, to planning the workload in, doing all the budgets, making sure we have resources, staff, materials, systems and processes in place that work to make the site efficient.

How did you get started with the RNLI?

When I left college, I did a yacht and boatyard management course at Southampton University. I then got a job as quality control manager for a group of four boatyards and shipyards. I ended up working at Souter Shipyard where the all-weather lifeboats were being built and refitted. It was then that I saw a role being advertised at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre. I read the job description and I thought: ‘That’s me!’

What inspired you to work for the RNLI?

Spookily enough, I always wanted to work for the RNLI from when I was a kid. When I left school at 16, I wrote to the Inshore Lifeboat Centre for a job and got declined. I’ve still got the letter from the person who was in charge. But it did me good because I learned a lot about the commercial stuff before I came here.

Come to our visitor and heritage centre to take a closer look at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre. Call 01983 292521 to book your free guided tour (Tuesdays and Thursdays). Find out more at RNLI.org/ILC.

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