Donate now
An all-weather lifeboat outside the RNLI’s All-weather Lifeboat Centre

Prawns, lifeboats and automobiles

A Shannon class lifeboat outside the RNLI’s All-weather lifeboat Centre in Poole Photo: Photo: Hallmark Media Group

Maintaining a lifeboat is just like maintaining a car, isn’t it? We asked Geoffrey Falconar from the Repair and Maintenance Team at the RNLI’s All-weather Lifeboat Centre.

It takes more than a lifeboat crew to save lives. It takes fuel. And oil. It takes air filters, coolant and anodes (more about them later). And it takes a team of mechanics who know what should go where, and when.

Like a car engine, a lifeboat engine needs looking after. And then some. But just how similar are the two? How do you make sure that a lifeboat engine starts on a frosty winter’s morning? And is there such thing as a lifeboat MOT?

We got into the nuts and bolts with Geoffrey Falconar, Cell Lead in the RNLI’s Asset Repair and Maintenance Team, which is based at the All-weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole, Dorset. Here’s what he had to say.

The All-Weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole, Dorset

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

The RNLI's All-weather Lifeboat Centre

Which lifeboats do you look after?

Pretty much the whole fleet, except the E class. Inshore lifeboats are generally maintained at the Inshore Lifeboat Centre on the Isle of Wight, but we look after some too. We also maintain hovercraft, machinery and, more recently, the Land Rovers.

Talking of Land Rovers, how much of your team’s work on lifeboats would seem familiar to the average car-owner?

Some of the work is similar. We change oil filters and fuel filters, and we check coolant levels – those kinds of things. We have to replace wiper blades too.

How often do you service the lifeboats – is a service carried out after a certain amount of miles? And is there such thing as a lifeboat MOT?

No and no. We keep track of the amount of hours that an engine’s been working. We schedule maintenance monthly, quarterly, 6-monthly, annually, every 5 years and every 10 years. Understandably, there’s no such thing as a ‘that’ll do’ attitude. Crews, and those they save, depend on everything being in top working order. Every box has to be ticked. And to work in our team, you need to have experience across all classes of lifeboat.

Where do you get your spare parts from?

We hold all you need to build a lifeboat. But sometimes, for a specific replacement part, we go to Scania or Caterpillar. 

The same Caterpillar that makes diggers?

Yes, our engines are very similar to those found in Caterpillar diggers. And our Scania engines are more or less the same ones found in Scania trucks – they’re just ‘marinised’, which means they are switched from running on air to running on cold water.

About that water – is salt water the enemy?

Yes and no. If it weren’t for the water, then we wouldn’t be able to cool the engines. But sea water is very corrosive, and if you’re not on top of it, salt water can do a lot of damage quite quickly. So we fit some parts with sacrificial anodes. 

What’s an anode? And a sacrificed one at that?

It’s a softer metal that’s used to protect another piece of metal from corrosion. Then we can replace the anode rather than the more expensive component that the anode was used to protect. 

Battling the elements must be a challenge. How do you ensure that a lifeboat’s engine starts on a cold winter’s morning? 

We use something called a block heater, which heats up the engine block and oils and ensures the engine is safe to start. 

Close-up of the hull of a lifeboat in foreground, with the RNLI’s All-weather lifeboat Centre in background

Photo: Hallmark Media Group

How do you decide when it’s time to ‘trade in’ a lifeboat for a newer model?

When it comes to parts and wear and tear, we practically double all the margins we’re given. Lives could depend on our work, so we over-engineer everything. We even x-ray hulls to detect any loss of integrity not visible to the naked eye.

Tell us about one of your favourite bits of engineering on a lifeboat.

The Shannon class is propelled by waterjets, and sometimes it could suck up debris – such as a plastic bag. Clearing the blockage could be costly in more ways than one. So the engine has a gearbox, solely to be used in reverse, so that the crew can backflush the debris – it gets spat out again, instead of clogging up the system. I can’t think of any other boat that has a gearbox on a jet engine.

And lastly, what type of maintenance might you do that the average car-owner will never have to worry about?

There’s a hole in the bottom of a lifeboat that sucks up the water that’s used to cool the coolant, that in turn cools the engine. The boat is fitted with something called a sea strainer, which, as the name suggests, acts as a filter and prevents unwanted things from getting where they shouldn’t. Our mechanics will often find prawns in there. I think it’s safe to say that ‘prawn removal’ is something the average driver is not likely to see on their next service bill!   

Check your engine. If you’re a sailor, you can download free checklists for inboard, outdrive and outboard engines – and find more handy advice – on our sailing page.

Stay safe