20 years of saving lives: The RNLI celebrates the anniversary of its hovercraft

Lifeboats News Release

Introduced in 2002, the inshore rescue hovercraft (IRH) continues to be an invaluable asset in the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) fleet as new figures show it has aided over 1,000 people in its lifetime.

Martin Fish

The first operational RNLI hovercraft, H-002 Hurley Flyer, at Morecambe in 2002.

The amphibious inshore rescue hovercraft has enabled the RNLI to carry out its lifesaving work in areas inaccessible to conventional lifeboats since 2002. Designed for search and rescue purposes, the hovercraft can tackle incidents on tidal mudflats or sand where the surface is too soft to support land vehicles and where the water is too shallow for boats.

The charity currently operates seven hovercrafts out of four stations including, Morecambe, Hunstanton, Southend-on-Sea and Hoylake, with three part of its relief fleet.

Since joining the RNLI’s fleet two decades ago, the hovercraft has extended the charity’s lifesaving capability around the coast, aiding over 1,200 people and saving 78 lives.

Jamie Chesnutt, RNLI Director of Engineering and Supply, said:

‘For the last 20 years, the hovercraft has enabled us to carry out rescues in sheltered, shallow waters where our other boats cannot operate and in specific limited weather conditions. It’s ability to reach 30 knots makes it fast and manoeuvrable, allowing quick access to these hard-to-reach areas, as well as making it useful for assisting with shoreline searches.

‘It’s unique features and capabilities including its versatility and speed has made a huge difference to the efficiency and effectiveness of our 24/7 search and rescue service. We are working on plans for the next generation of hovercraft to continue enabling our crews to save lives at sea around the UK.’

Prior to 2002, the only method of rapid access to these areas was by helicopter or walking. Now, the IRH enables RNLI volunteers to take the direct route across the estuary and mudflats, allowing for a quicker response time.

Hurley Flyer, the first of its fleet to become a station asset, was donated by Mrs Hurley from Oxfordshire and has been on service at Morecambe RNLI for 20 years.

Steve Wilson, Lifeboat Operations Manager at Morecambe, has been part of the RNLI for 27 years. Steve said:

‘Having been part of the RNLI for almost three decades now, I have seen Morecambe Lifeboat Station with and without the hovercraft and I can safely say it has had a positive impact on the community.

‘Having the hovercraft and lifeboat on station brings many benefits to our lifesaving work. For example, if we’re looking for a missing person and we don’t know exactly where they are, we have both assets doing parallel searches. So, the hovercraft can go along the shoreline and the lifeboat can be a mile further out searching the water. It expands our search capabilities a huge amount.’

In two decades, the hovercraft has launched a total of 1,466 times*, with 34 of those shouts involving animal rescues, including horses, dogs and even dolphins.

David Cartwright, Hovercraft Commander at Southend-on-Sea RNLI, shares his most memorable rescue:

‘In 2020, we were tasked to rescue two dolphins near London Gateway Port, where they got stranded from the shore at Mucking Flats. It was a multi-agency rescue involving Essex Fire and Rescue and the British Divers Marine Life Rescue.

‘The dolphins had managed to create a hollow in the mud and were unable to get back to the water. Using two inflatable rafts, one on each side of the hovercraft, we ferried the two dolphins back to the open water across the mudflats.

‘It was a surreal experience having two dolphins strapped to either side of the hovercraft whilst flying it. It was an unusual but memorable day.’

The IRH is equipped with specialised mud-rescue equipment, a spinal board and a First Aid kit so RNLI volunteers are prepared 24/7 for any type of rescue.

Leesa Epsley, from Hunstanton RNLI, became the first female Hovercraft Pilot in the RNLI. Leesa said:

‘The hovercraft is totally different from a traditional RNLI lifeboat in terms of how it launches, how it’s flown, crew roles, equipment onboard, methods for rescuing people and it’s accessibility to inland areas. It has no brakes, it can’t reverse and because it’s all on a cushion air, it can be affected by the wind. It’s great to fly but it can be challenging.’

The IRH has two inflatable sponsons, which gives the craft an overall height of 2.25 metres when inflated. They are used to provide stability and additional buoyancy, and offer a soft edge for casualty recovery.

Hovercraft Commander at Hoylake RNLI, James Whiteley, explains the importance of the craft:

‘The hovercraft has become a real, and significant, asset to the station and the RNLI overall. It is a very specific craft designed to tackle different terrain and there has been many occasions that without the hovercraft, some people wouldn’t be alive today.’

With large areas of mud, sand and shallow water, Morecambe, Hunstanton, Southend-on-Sea and Hoylake Lifeboat Stations require the craft for its unique capabilities in reaching inaccessible areas, shoreline searches, and tackling dangerous terrain. It is an invaluable asset for saving lives at sea.

To find out more about the RNLI’s hovercraft, visit: RNLI.org/hovercraft

The RNLI urges those on or near coastal waters to:

  • Check the weather forecast and tide times before visiting the coast.
  • If you find yourself unexpectedly in the water, remember to FLOAT – fight the urge to thrash around, lean back, and extend your arms and legs.
  • If you find yourself in an emergency or spot someone else in trouble, you should call 999 or 112 and ask for the Coastguard.


Notes to editors

  • *Statistic combines launches from all four hovercraft stations: Morecambe, Hunstanton, Southend-on-Sea and Hoylake.
  • Interviews with RNLI spokesperson available upon request.
RNLI media contacts

For more information please contact Chloe Barr, National Media Engagement Placement on 07790 772788 or [email protected], or contact the RNLI Press Office on 01202 336789 or [email protected].

RNLI/Nigel Millard

Hunstanton RNLI's hovercraft, H-003 Hunstanton Flyer, out on a training exercise in 2019.

RNLI/David Edwards

Hoylake RNLI's hovercraft, H-005 Hurley Spirit, returning from a shout in 2021.

Stephen Duncombe

Southend RNLI's hovercraft, H-004 Vera Ravine, during a training exercise in 2020.

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

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For more information please visit the RNLI website or Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. News releases, videos and photos are available on the News Centre.

Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.