Sterling service: the Severn

The Severn is our biggest, most robust all-weather lifeboat. RNLI volunteers from the wild Atlantic to the chilly North Sea have relied on her to rescue thousands of people over more than two decades. And this year we celebrate the 25th birthday of this remarkable lifesaving craft.

What is it?

The Severn class lifeboat is a tough and powerful all-weather lifesaving craft, designed by in-house RNLI engineers. Our lifesavers turn to her when they need to tackle the very worst sea conditions. With a range of 250 miles, she really comes into her own on long offshore searches and rescues. Her twin turbocharged engines mean she has the power to tow large vessels out of danger and, despite her size, she is surprisingly agile.

Severn specs

Length: 17.3m
Launch type: from afloat
Max speed: 25 knots
Crew: 7
Survivor capacity: 124
Communications: VHF and MF radio with digital selective calling
Navigation: radar, GPS electronic chart, VHF direction finder
Medical: stretchers, oxygen and full resuscitation kit, Entonox and large responder bag.

The Severn also carries a small inflatable daughter craft which ideal for reaching people near rocks and shallows. As with all RNLI all-weather lifeboats, the Severn is inherently self-righting – meaning she immediately pings the right way up if she’s ever knocked down by wave. 

Why the Severn class?

In the 1980s the RNLI's Arun and Waveney class lifeboats provided lifesaving cover up to 30 miles out to sea. With a top speed of 18 knots they could cover that distance in 2 hours, so long as the weather was good. But the RNLI wanted to extend its declared coverage to 50 miles out and save more lives. That required a 25-knot all-weather fleet.

So work began in the early 1990s to develop two FABs (Fast Afloat Boats) that would eventually replace the old 18-knot fleet. Traditional lifeboat materials like wood, steel and aluminium were dropped in favour of modern, lighter and tougher fibre-reinforced composite and sandwich constructions. The RNLI design teams tested new hull forms to reduce slamming in heavy seas and gave them low sheerlines to make it easier for crews to recover casualties. And both FABs were fitted with powerful inversion-proof engines and the cutting-edge technology of the day. The larger of the two, codenamed FAB3, was later dubbed the Severn class after the UK’s longest river.

Harwich was the first station to receive a Severn, the Albert Brown, which went on service in 1996. She was funded from a gift in the Will of Victoria Brown to commemorate her late husband. In another - more recent - first for the station, Di Brown took up the helm of this very same craft as the first female coxswain of an RNLI all-weather lifeboat. 

Newhaven crew onboard relief lifeboat Severn Volunteer Spirit battle the St Jude storm in a desperate search for a missing teenager

Photo: Craig Denton

Newhaven crew onboard relief lifeboat Severn Volunteer Spirit battle the St Jude storm in a desperate search for a missing teenager

'Tested for real'

It wasn't long before the speed and endurance of the new Severn class was put to the test. Three weeks after receiving their new lifeboat, Harwich volunteers were called to a large merchant ship in trouble 50 miles off the coast. After losing power following an electrical fire, it was drifting in huge seas at the mercy of a Force 9.

The RNLI volunteers got to the scene in little over 3½ hours, despite the horrible conditions. They stood by the stricken vessel, providing support to her crew for more than 5 hours, until they were able to restore power and safely go on their way.

Afterwards, the Harwich crew said they were very pleased with how their new craft shaped up – with the Station’s Honorary Secretary economically reporting: 'Long outstanding service in very bad weather. Crew took severe punishment for 11 hours. Severn class tested for real. Good boat.'

Castletownbere’s crew onboard their Severn class lifeboat Annette Hutton during a night training exercise

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Castletownbere’s crew onboard their Severn class lifeboat Annette Hutton during a night training exercise

Less than a year later, another Severn took part in one of the most dramatic rescues in RNLI history. Battling storm force winds and enormous waves, the crew of Lerwick Lifeboat Station helped rescue the 15 crew of the Green Lily. It was a rescue filled with tragedy and triumph. It is also the latest rescue where a Gold Medal was awarded. Coxswain Hewitt Clark, one of the most decorated lifeboat crew in RNLI history, received the award for his incredible seamanship during the rescue.

Mike Floyd, Editor of lifeboat at the time said: ‘Hewitt’s skill, courage and seamanship were breathtaking, as was his confidence in his crew - and his lifeboat. This service was truly the coming of age of the Severn. Her fibre reinforced composite construction took punishment that would have surely caused serious damage to any other material, her sea-going ability was proven beyond doubt and her power and manoeuvrability were put to the severest of tests.’

How about making your very own Severn class lifeboat? You can get your own at our RNLI Shop!

You can help save lives at sea with a donation today. From kit to crew training to kids’ education, you’ll be making a real difference to our volunteers – and the people they save.

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