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Swift launch, safe home

Exploring the courage, innovation and brute strength behind two essential elements of any RNLI rescue: lifeboat launch and recovery.

Tenby volunteers onboard Tamar class lifeboat Haydn Miller hit the sea with a splash

Photo: Adam Jones

Tenby volunteers onboard Tamar class lifeboat Haydn Miller hit the sea with a splash

An RNLI volunteer knocks out a large brass pin and the lifesavers hold on tightly as they hurtle down the sheer slipway into the raging sea onboard their trusty lifeboat. Many of us will conjure this iconic image when we think about a lifeboat launch. But it’s not the full story of how RNLI volunteers have been getting their lifesaving machines, large and small, in and out of the water for almost 200 years.

People and horsepower

Throughout the 1800s and early 20th century, the most popular method of launching without moorings was to physically pull lifeboats into the water. In those days, just as there were no engines to propel the boats, there were no tractors to tow them. Similarly, the traditional lifeboat house with its iron piling slipway would not make an appearance until the late Victorian era. Instead, the crews relied on many strong hands and horses to haul their heavy craft across a beach on bulky wheeled carriages or over greased timber skids. Typically, the launch site would be some way from the boathouse and the weather would be horrible.

A re-enactment of the overland launch at Lynmouth where the lifeboat was hauled 13 miles overland

Photo: RNLI/Steve Guscott

A century on: re-enactment of the overland launch at Lynmouth where the lifeboat was hauled 13 miles overland in a desperate attempt to save the crew of Forrest Hall

One stormy night in 1899, it took 20 men and 18 horses 11 hours to haul the 10-tonne Lynmouth lifeboat Louisa 13 miles overland to a safer place to launch at Porlock Weir. Their combined efforts resulted in the successful rescue of all 18 people from the stricken ship Forrest Hall. Although this remains an exceptional feat, applying the true grit of every human and beast to hand was a common occurrence. At Newbiggin in Northumberland, the saying was: ‘Every man to the boat, every woman to the rope’, referring to how the local women would drag the lifeboat across the beach before the lifeboatmen took up the oars.

Ladies that launched

For more than a century, the lifeboats of Dungeness were put to sea by a team of women known as the Lady Launchers. The women would drag heavy wooden skids across the shingle beach and lay them under the keel of the lifeboat before taking to the ropes. In the early days, wearing no more protective kit than their own coats and scarves, the women would then piggy-back the men into the boat. The Tart and Oiller families formed the backbone of this group – with Doris Tart, her mother-in-law Ellen and aunt Madge serving as launchers for around 50 years. Can you imagine the storms, blizzards and drenchings they endured? And the huddles around a fire until they were called on again to run the whole procedure in reverse?

Lifeboat Launcher Doris Tart from Dungeness, speaking about lifeboat launching during the Second World War
Doris Tart, from Dungeness, speaking about lifeboat launching during the Second World War

Staying on track

The horse-drawn carriage launch was a familiar but magnificent sight for the best part of a century, with machine gradually replacing beast in the 1930s. It was with good reason – in The Life-Boat Journal of May 1920 Chief Inspector of Lifeboats Howard Rowley explained: ‘It is becoming increasingly hard to get the use of horses and the men to manage them, and they have frequently to be brought long distances, with consequent delay, and the cost of hiring is rapidly becoming prohibitive. If we can find a mechanical means for launching, and get rid of this uncertain element, we shall greatly increase the efficiency, certainty and speed of the service.’

A sepia photograph showing more than 30 volunteers pulling a Huxley lifeboat

Photo: GW Bolton

Probably the final recovery of Hauxley lifeboat. The Hauxley volunteers saved 246 lives over 87 years. The station closed in 1939 when Amble station reopened with a new motor lifeboat

Breaking new ground

With farm horses being replaced by tractors, the RNLI looked to agricultural machines to usher in new age of launch and recovery. These vehicles could tackle terrain that horses could not, be operated by just one person and reduced risk to volunteers. The first caterpillar tractor trial took place at Hunstanton in Norfolk to see if it could be adapted for beach launching. The 3-tonne Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor, with a 35hp petrol engine and 14-inch caterpillar tracks, was put through its paces over flat sand, dunes and uneven, rocky ground. It easily towed the Hunstanton lifeboat and carriage, a combined weight of 7½ tonnes. 

Afterwards, Captain Rowley said: ‘Every conceivable form of trial was made, and a launch was successfully carried out on the steep part of the beach, over a distance of about 200 yards in 7 minutes, with the full crew and only four helpers. Under ordinary conditions such a launch would require 8 or 10 horses and as many helpers.’

A volunteer atop a Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor

Photo: GW Bolton

RNLI trials showed that Clayton and Shuttleworth tractor could easily replace the work of horses and reduce the number of lifeboat launchers needed


The tractor was modified to make it seaworthy and it went on service at Hunstanton in 1921 as the first RNLI launch and recovery tractor. By 1927, the RNLI were experimenting with a larger four-wheel drive tractor to see if it was powerful enough to cope with the deep shingle and thick sticky mud at other locations. Designed together with the Four Wheel Drive Lorry Company, the tractor and its special carriage were fitted with a roadless traction creeper track, enabling it to handle all kinds of beach conditions. It was powered by a watertight petrol engine, with four forward and two reverse gears. It also carried a winding drum with steel wire rope, which helped to haul the lifeboat off its carriage once it was in deeper water.

As waterproofing techniques improved, our launching vehicles moved into deeper waters. By the 1970s, the RNLI was driving the development of the Talus MB-764 tractor. Looking somewhat like a lunar landing buggy, this marinised County tractor could wade up to 1.5m. The RNLI has continued to innovate, working closely with specialist tractor companies to develop new launch and recovery systems ever since. Today we have around 15 types in our fleet to meet the varying needs of all our stations and craft, as we move to standardise our kit to make it easier and more cost-effective to maintain.

An RNLI tractor pulls an all-weather lifeboat from the water

Photo: Royal Bank of Scotland/Rick Tomlinson

RNLI tractors were fully submersible by the 1980s, like this Talus MB-H crawler at St Ives. Designed for the RNLI, dual controls meant the driver could operate it facing in either direction

Shannon launch and recovery

The RNLI’s latest launching technology carries the DNA of these earlier vehicles. Known as SLARS (Shannon launch and recovery system), it was designed for our newest and most agile class of all-weather lifeboat. Both tractor and boat are built in-house at the RNLI’s All-Weather Lifeboat Centre in Poole and, together, they are revolutionising the way we save lives and making best use of every penny or cent you donate.

SLARS acts like a mobile slipway for the Shannon. You can drive it directly onto the beach. SLARS can carry the 18-tonne lifeboat over all kinds of terrain – from steep, shelving shingle to wet, sticky sand. It can drive into big surf and safely launch the lifeboat in up to 2.4m of water. The lifeboat is launched at the touch of a button and the whole system requires minimal manual handling by shore crew, making for safer and more efficient operations. When it’s time for recovery, the lifeboat beaches bow first onto the tractor’s turntable cradle which can rotate the craft 180º, ready to be quickly launched again.

Exmouth volunteers using a Shannon launch and recovery system

Photo: John Thorogood

Exmouth volunteers recover R & J Welburn using the Shannon launch and recovery system. SLARS can complete the procedure more than twice as fast as its predecessor and tow the lifeboat to the water more quickly

All lifeboats and locations

So far you’ve read about locations that don’t have harbours or slipways. What about those that do? Every lifeboat station needs a safe and rapid method of launch and recovery that suits its particular craft and geography.

Always afloat

For an RNLI station based in an easily accessible harbour, with no tidal events drying it out, the lifeboat can be moored afloat. Ideally, they are tethered alongside a pontoon for easy access by foot or bicycle or, if moored further out, reached by boarding boat.

Newhaven crew walk down a set of stairs to their Severn class lifeboat, which is moored afloat in the harbour

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Newhaven crew only have a short walk along the station pontoon to launch their Severn class lifeboat, which is moored afloat in the harbour

Down the slipway

To launch an all-weather lifeboat at a location with no natural harbour or where there is a large tidal range or silting, a slipway is needed. Today, the RNLI has just 17 slipway stations. They each have a section inside, where the lifeboat is held on rollers. That section is connected to a sloped keelway of coated steel outside. The craft is released from the top of the slip and descends under its own weight.

Typically, the gradient will be 1 in 5 so the crews can reach speeds of around 30mph as they hit the water. Following a rescue, the lifeboat is recovered to the top of the slipway by winch.

Heavy lifting

Launching an all-weather lifeboat by crane is rare, but there is one example at Workington. The lifeboat used to be moored afloat in the Derwent Estuary, where it was exposed to debris try and heavy siltation. A unique solution was found: a bespoke davit system that launches today’s Shannon class lifeboat and her crew over the dock wall. The crane can operate in severe weather, meaning the crew can launch into heavy swells and winds of more than 100mph.

Inshore lifeboats

Our E class lifeboats, used exclusively on the River Thames, are all moored afloat, but other types of inshore lifeboats need their own launch and recovery systems. The D class is usually launched by a tractor and trolley system but the larger B class lifeboats will either launch from a drive-on drive-off carriage, shore-mounted crane, floating pontoon or floating boathouse. Meanwhile, inshore rescue hovercraft are moved from site to site by specialist transporter vehicles.

They can launch from any flat area, such as a car park or beach, provided there is enough room.

A New Holland Boomer inshore launch vehicle

Photo: RNLI

A New Holland Boomer 50 arrives at the RNLI Inshore Lifeboat Centre for refit. A growing range of inshore lifeboat launch vehicles like this are repaired and refitted by in-house engineers

Hidden heroes

Of course, the most vital ingredient in any successful launch or recovery today is the shore crew. These dedicated and highly trained volunteers are needed to help with every carriage, slipway and davit launch – covering everything from driving complex launch vehicles, to marshalling onlookers to safety. At slipway stations at least four are needed – including a head launcher, winch operator and two other volunteers. And every lifeboat station, whatever the class of craft, needs a team to refuel, clean down and make ready for launch again. 

Throughout their tasks, the shore volunteers rely on personal protective kit to keep them safe and dry; radio headsets for clear communication over the noise of waves, weather and engines; and a nice warm cup of tea and shelter in the lifeboat station crew room.

You’re a vital member of the RNLI shore crew because we couldn’t launch a lifeboat without you. It’s thanks to your generous support that we’re able to invest money, expertise and innovation into lifeboat launch and recovery, helping us in our mission to save every one.

Will you consider making a donation to the RNLI Launch Appeal today, to make sure every lifeboat station has the right equipment?