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Bringing our people home safe

For generations, RNLI volunteers have braved the roughest seas on the wildest nights, all in the spirit of saving every one. And it’s been our duty to do everything in our power to bring those volunteers home safe.

A female crew member stands in front of crew kit

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

It takes teams of dedicated people to keep our crews safe. The trainers who give them the skills they need. The kind supporters like you who fund the service. And a whole department devoted to designing, developing, building, sourcing and maintaining all the kit our crews depend on – from the nuts and bolts holding a lifeboat together in a raging storm, to the lifejacket that will keep a volunteer afloat should they end up in the water. That RNLI department is Engineering and Supply. 

‘Our aim in Engineering and Supply is to understand what the crews need and to provide that for them,’ says Head of Asset Management Neil Chaplin. ‘In doing that, we focus on more than just a design. We consider every life stage of the equipment and put the user at the centre of the design, making sure it’s safe, usable, maintainable, and cost-effective and that there is a sustainable plan for each item.'

A portrait of Neil Chaplin, Head of Asset Management

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Neil Chaplin, Head of Asset Management

At the virtual drawing board

The RNLI CAD (Computer-aided Design) Team worked from home through the pandemic, designing and drawing up high-spec lifeboat components in their own living rooms. ‘We design every piece of the boat in 3D,’ says Lorena Rubio-Sabater, an RNLI Senior CAD Engineer. 

A portrait of Lorena Rubio-Sabater, RNLI Senior CAD Engineer

Photo: RNLI/Ashton Milton

Lorena Rubio-Sabater, RNLI Senior CAD Engineer

For the past few months, the CAD Team have been working on components for the Severn Life Extension Programme. The RNLI’s Severn class lifeboat was designed for 25 years of service and first went to sea in 1996. It’s still a good lifeboat, with a strong hull that performs well in big seas, but its systems and fittings could use an update. One example is fitting the Severn with SIMS, which allows crews to manage things like engines, bilge and electrics from the safety of their seats. SIMS is already in use on the Shannon and Tamar class lifeboats, but with the Severn’s larger size and different shape, the wiring and controls need to be redrawn to fit.

Shopping for a new mattress

The D class lifeboat is the busiest in the RNLI’s fleet. Small and speedy, its crews can reach people in tight spots, fast. But there’s no denying it: that close to the water, it can be a bumpy ride.

Senior Naval Architect Susie Webber is working on improving the D class mattress – the protective layer fitted into the base of the lifeboat. ‘There are always opportunities to improve and keep our crew safe, reducing any shock loadings they’re getting,’ Susie says. ‘We need them to be at their best when they get to a casualty.’ And the list of considerations the project engineers have to take into account is staggering. 

A portrait of Susie Webber, Senior Naval Architect
Susie Webber, Senior Naval Architect

‘The crews have to be able to do casualty care,’ Susie explains, ‘so if it’s too soft it’s comfortable, but you can’t do CPR on it. We need to make sure it can be easily cleaned after first aid on an injury too. It needs to withstand saltwater. It needs to be good value for money, so we’re using donors’ money wisely. 

‘We have to be mindful that we’re dealing with a boat that already exists. We don’t want to change the boat beyond what the crews have been trained for. We can’t have a suspension unit on there because it would make the boat too heavy, so that’s driven us towards a technology solution, rather than a mechanical one.’

Susie and the team researched what was on the market, selected a number of options and took them to sea for trials. One solution, Skydex, used in military operations and in high-performance trainers, performed best. RNLI engineers took the material and developed a mattress that would fit the D class lifeboat, and it’s set to be trialled at five lifeboat stations this summer. That’s another clever consideration from the team: trialling new developments in our busiest season to maximise the amount of data we can collect.

‘Skydex is much like bubble wrap,’ Susie says, ‘but it doesn’t pop! Hemispheres sit on top of each other. As they compress, the air gives you some resistance and you get a concertina effect. It’s that air cushion that we’re essentially giving the crews.’

The current mattress was designed with the best materials at the time, but as new technologies like Skydex are developed, we can enhance crew comfort and performance. And get ever closer to saving every one.

The next generation

Ralphy Whiffen is in his third year as a mechanical technician apprentice at the RNLI’s All-weather Lifeboat Centre. ‘It’s a very varied role,’ he says, ‘especially as an apprentice because they move you around quite a lot so you learn as much as possible. And for one day a week I go to college where I study my NVQ for Marine Engineering.’

Ralphy has been working on fitting all of Lorena and the CAD Team’s new parts for the Severn Life Extension Programme. He’s been repairing all-weather lifeboats and servicing inshore lifeboats. On the day we spoke with him he’d just replaced a faulty alternator in the engine room of a Mersey class lifeboat.

A portrait of Ralphy Whiffen, Mechanical Technician Apprentice

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Ralphy Whiffen, Mechanical Technician Apprentice

‘With maintenance, you learn how to do it and you get used to it,’ says Ralphy. ‘But the repair work is where it gets a little bit more interesting. That’s what college like to see as well – fault finding and problem solving. You need to show them how you would find a fault and how you would fix it.

‘There’s no cutting corners here. These boats are built for the worst conditions; they’re heading into the storm. If I have any questions, everybody is incredibly happy to help me. And once I’ve done my repair or my service, I know that I’ve done the best job I can and I know that the boat is going to be saving lives. It is a very satisfying feeling, definitely.’

The next 200 years

As we approach the RNLI’s 200th birthday in 2024, we’re looking to the future more than ever. ‘My team are capable at building and operating the current fleet,’ says Engineering and Supply Director Jamie Chestnutt. ‘My focus is supporting the team in getting ready for what's coming next.' 

A portrait of Jamie Chestnutt, Engineering and Supply Director

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Jamie Chestnutt, Engineering and Supply Director

‘Sustainability and new technologies will drive change in all we do, and we may need to think differently about the way we design, build and operate our boats in the future.’

Sustainability is not just about the natural environment; it’s also about including as many people as possible in our work. So another hot topic in engineering is human factors – designing equipment and systems around people.

Neil Chaplin explains: ‘We have more women on our lifeboat crews now. The size, weight and shape of people is changing, and the communities they come from are changing. How do we accommodate people who might have disabilities on our lifeboats? Or people with a learning difficulty, or a perceptual difficulty, like colour blindness? We don’t want to exclude people with great crew potential.’

In the past few years, work has been done on crew kit that’s a better shape for women, and on lifejackets that can support heavier people. Now, Neil has hired a new engineer to lead on human factors, and on making their consideration a standard part of everything the RNLI does from the outset.

Jamie Chestnutt explains: ‘If you go to sea as a lifesaver, you have to wear protective kit. But what if our standard clothing doesn’t fit you properly? We need to think about equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) when purchasing clothing and equipment, and also when thinking about accessibility options for shops, lifeboat stations, changing facilities and boats. If we don't think about EDI in all we do, we’re going to build or buy the wrong things.’

The feeling of doing right by people, and of being part of the rescue team, permeates the RNLI Engineering and Supply Department. Whether they’re fitting an alternator, sourcing smaller boots, exploring options for greener fuels or sitting at a CAD screen designing a front casing grille, they, like you, are in it to save every one. 

At the sharp end

Taking care of these amazing machines doesn’t end at the doors of the All-weather Lifeboat Centre. There’s the Inshore Lifeboat Centre at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Plus teams of regional engineers and in-service support staff are on call to make sure things run properly at the sharp end. Each lifeboat station has its own seagoing mechanics who take care of lifesaving equipment day to day, and out on shouts.

A portrait of Trevor Bunney, Coxswain at Dungeness

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Trevor Bunney, Coxswain at Dungeness

At Dungeness, in 2014, Trevor Bunney was the first RNLI mechanic to take delivery of a Shannon class lifeboat. With waterjet propulsion, an RNLI-designed slam-reducing hull, and the new SIMS technology, the Shannon was – and still is – the pride of RNLI Engineering.

‘We’ve had the Shannon for 8 years now,’ says Trevor, ‘and it’s proving to be a very good boat. It’s a lot more technical than previous boats. As a station mechanic, you need to up your game and stay on top of the technology. 

‘We’re getting on very well with the waterjets. The impellers [parts of the waterjet that suck water in] have to be in tip-top condition or you lose performance. So every 6 months the waterjets are stripped down and inspected. That’s a thing we never had to do with an “old-fashioned” propeller boat. 

‘I’ve always taken this job very seriously, because the boat could go out in storm-force conditions with five other crew onboard. I’ve also got a huge sense of pride in how the boat is looked after, because it ultimately reflects on the station. 

‘I’d like to say a very humble thank you to anyone who donates and provides us with this equipment. It’s an honour to take care of it, and it’s reassuring that we have the best kit to go to sea in the worst conditions.’

We're so grateful for your support this summer - thank you so much for helping to bring our people home safe.