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Horses to horsepower: A launching legacy

Let’s travel through time, from the days of hearing the loud bang of a maroon and the gallop of hooves approaching the boathouse to the recent roar of a tractor engine plunging an 18-tonne lifeboat into powerful surf. Here are two remarkable lifeboat launches from then and now, celebrating how far we’ve come in almost 200 years of saving lives at sea. 

A black and white photograph of two horses pulling a lifeboat, next to a modern day photograph of a Shannon class lifeboat being launched by a high-tech launch and recovery system
Then and now: From horses to horsepower

Early lifeboat launchers

Before the first tractors were introduced in the 1920s, RNLI volunteers launched out to sea using the might and muscle of humans and horses. 

When the call for help came, horses were hired locally – usually from farmers – to pull the crew’s rowing boat on a wheeled carriage across vast, tricky terrains and get the lifeboat into the water.  

Formal agreements were made between the RNLI and the owners of the horses – they would outline conditions such as these, taken from Bridlington in 1913: 

  • Supply no fewer than 10 horses when required for training exercises or service, at a payment of 10 shillings per horse, for a distance not exceeding 2 miles of the lifeboat station.
  • An additional payment of 1 shilling per horse will be awarded for each mile or portion of a mile beyond this 2-mile radius. 
  • As well as payment for horses, two horsemen will be employed to assist with training exercises and three horsemen will be employed to assist with a rescue service. 
The last horses in service at the RNLI - turning the capstan to pull the Hastings lifeboat up the beach

Photo: Evening Argus

One of the last horse services in the RNLI - turning the capstan to pull the Hastings lifeboat up the beach

Being highly intelligent, horses quickly learned what they needed to do as they were strapped into the harness of a lifeboat’s launch carriage – even more remarkable, as the RNLI weren’t the only emergency service who relied on them to answer the call for help. 

At Wells, the local fire brigade also launched using horses. When the alarm sounded, the mares could tell whether it was coming from the fire station or the boathouse and knew where they needed to go. The horses were kept in a meadow on the edge of town and when the maroons went off, calling the crew to a rescue, the horses would gallop to the gate and wait to be taken down to the lifeboat house on the quay. 

‘It was impossible to launch at Lynmouth. We sent for horses’ 

One of the most extraordinary lifeboat launches in RNLI history took place on Thursday 12 January 1899. It was a night that saw the volunteer crew, 47 helpers and 13 horses drag the Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa for 13 miles towards Porlock Weir to safely launch their lifeboat during a violent storm. If they succeeded, the crew would be able to power out to sea and rescue the stricken ship Forrest Hall – as well as the 15 people onboard.

‘The end of an era’

As the First World War began, many horses were commandeered by the military and lifeboat launches by horse became rarer. At some lifeboat stations, it was impossible to hire any at all – and at others, they had to be brought from such distances that a launch would become increasingly delayed.  

In 1920, Captain Howard FJ Rowley, RNLI Chief Inspector of Lifeboats said: ‘If we can find a mechanical means for launching, we shall greatly increase the efficiency, certainty and speed of the service.’

The 1999 re-enactment of the 1899 Lynmouth lifeboat launch at Porlock Weir

Photo: RNLI/Steve Guscott

The 1999 re-enactment of the 1899 Lynmouth lifeboat launch at Porlock Weir

Our newest chapter 

Today, almost 125 years after the first horse-powered launch, we’re using horsepower of a very different kind to send our lifeboats out to rescue.

Known as SLARS (Shannon launch and recovery system), our latest innovation has been designed especially for our newest and most agile class of all-weather lifeboat: the Shannon. This launch and recovery system has a 450hp engine and it acts like a mobile slipway – the ideal solution for RNLI stations without harbours, built-in slipways or davit systems.

Skegness RNLI’s Shannon class lifeboat is transported to the water by the SLARS

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Skegness RNLI’s Shannon class lifeboat is transported to the water by the SLARS

The 37-tonne SLARS can carry an 18-tonne Shannon over all types of terrain with ease – whether it’s steep shelving shingle or thick, cloying mud. It can drive directly into big surf and launch the lifeboat in up to 2.4m of water with a touch of a button, making operations safer and more efficient for the volunteers. 

Once the lifeboat is ready to return to shore after a rescue, the lifeboat beaches bow first onto the tractor’s cradle that can rotate the lifeboat 180º, making her ready to be launched again within minutes. A vital feature when the call for help comes and a life is on the line. 

Light work, heavy seas 

The pager sounded for the volunteers at Llandudno RNLI on a cold, blustery evening in September 2022. The sea was extremely rough, the winds were heavy, and rain was driving sideways. Out at sea, a 12m vessel was drifting closer towards the pier at Llandudno Bay with a failed engine. 

As conditions grew heavier, the person onboard the vessel couldn’t hold a safe, steady position with their anchor. But the lifeboat crew were already making their way down the sharp, shingled beach that separates the lifeboat station from the water’s edge – the Shannon class lifeboat safely secured onto the SLARS tractor. 

Llandudno’s lifeboat launching to the rescue on 27 September 2022

Photo: RNLI/Llandudno

Llandudno’s lifeboat launching to the rescue on 27 September 2022

Bringing the all-weather lifeboat and her crew into the charging white horses on the water, the SLARS released the Shannon into the surf, and the volunteers were soon on scene thanks to the vital time-saving the system affords with its state-of-the-art technology. 

The volunteers quickly made a plan with the skipper of the boat, who was safe onboard his vessel, to escort him to the safety of Conwy Harbour while the boat still had use of its remaining engine. 

As the lifeboat crew guided the boat around Great Orme’s Head, the vessel suddenly lost its second engine – and had to quickly be taken under tow to keep steady against the very fast spring tides. 

Under the lifeboat crew’s protection, the vessel was brought to the safe mooring of the Beacons Jetty. Coxswain Tim James explains: ‘This was far from a straightforward rescue. The wind and tide made the journey very difficult, especially for the casualty vessel as the breaking waves were pushing it all the time towards the rocks. 

‘It was one of the most technically difficult sets of manoeuvres I’ve ever had to do to get someone safely alongside.’ 

The SLARS ready and waiting to recover Llandudno’s lifeboat from the angry waves

Photo: RNLI/Llandudno/Simon Adey Davies

The SLARS ready and waiting to recover Llandudno’s lifeboat from the angry waves

The lifeboat volunteers made their journey back to the station, where the SLARS was waiting to recover the Shannon from the swirling sea, and the lifeboat was made ready for the next service by the awaiting shore crew. Out of the tremendous difficulties the crew faced to bring the skipper safely home, launching to his rescue wasn’t one of them. 

It’s only thanks to generous support like yours that we’re able to invest generations of expertise and innovation into lifeboat launch and recovery. They’re our hidden hero – and so are you. By donating to our Spring Appeal today, you’ll help to fund the RNLI launch and recovery equipment our lifeboat stations need to help save every one.