By Clay Evans, maritime historian and retired Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat coxswain

The summer of 2024 will mark an auspicious milestone in international cooperation at sea as it will be 100 years since the first International Lifeboat Conference was held in London to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) of Great Britain and Ireland.

This year will see the 24th congress, now known as the World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC), take place in Rotterdam this June, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the formation of the present-day International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) in 2024.

Maintaining invaluable international links in the maritime search and rescue (SAR) community for the last 100 years has been an extraordinary endeavour. Representatives from several nations and organisations have long pursued the humanitarian ideals of the common duty to protect and save lives at sea.

The concept of ‘international humanitarianism’ for those shipwrecked at sea was not entirely new in 1924.

A century earlier, coinciding with the founding of both the RNLI and the KNRM in the Netherlands in 1824, notable figures, such as Captain George Manby, the inventor of the line-throwing mortar, called for the establishment of a network of ‘shipwreck societies’ around the world.  Heeding such calls to action and recognising the constant suffering and toll on lives on each nation’s coasts during the age of sail, the Société Générale des Naufrages et de l’Union des Nations was formed in 1835 in Paris by an international group of advocates. This organisation rapidly developed chapters on every continent and eventually became known as the Société Internationale des Naufrages, or ISS.

Notably, this transnational humanitarian effort preceded the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross by almost 30 years. Unfortunately, despite issuing thousands of lifesaving awards and establishing an admirable international network of representatives, lifeboats and lifesaving apparatus around the globe, the ISS did not survive as a viable entity past 1843.

By 1924, the world was a much different place, particularly in terms of technologies relating to transportation at sea and intercontinental communications. In 1914, following the loss of the RMS Titanic and many other tragedies at sea, the first international Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention was established.

Recovering from the ravages of World War I, the humanitarian ideal was much more pronounced on the global stage and the recognition of international interdependence was at the forefront.

An international flotilla of lifeboats parades down the Thames to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding on the RNLI and the first ever ILC in 1924. Credit: RNLI

The League of Nations was created in 1920 and included individuals that had links to lifesaving organisations in their respective countries. Several of these representatives were invited to the RNLI’s large centennial celebrations in London, with the secondary intent of initiating a ‘Conference on the World’s Lifeboat Service’. To this end, the first conference was held in July 1924 at Westminster City Hall. Representatives from Denmark, France, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United States attended.

One of these representatives was Count Kozo Yoshii, Chairman of the Imperial Japanese Life-boat Society and a Japanese and British League of Nations Unions member. During the proceedings, Count Yoshii espoused the merits of holding future conferences and put forward a resolution that was unanimously accepted:

That an International Lifeboat Organisation be formed on the lines of the Red Cross Society, with all the National Lifeboat Societies as its members, and that copies of this resolution be sent to all maritime countries, the headquarters of the League of Nations at Geneva, and the League of Nations Union of all countries.

Although an advisory committee of the League of Nations recommended to their national organisations “to keep in constant touch with each other”, the concept of an independent international organisation would still be decades away. In reality, the core European Lifeboat Societies, and in particular the RNLI, which had been sharing information and designs internationally since its inception, continued as an unofficial form of lifeboat secretariate. They continued corresponding and exchanging information between conferences that would happen every four years, hosted by different nations and their respective lifeboat organisations. 

Attendees at the first International Lifeboat Conference held in London in 1924. Credit: RNLI

While the concept of an international lifesaving organisation had yet to survive, the International Lifeboat Conferences carried on. To date, there have been 23 such gatherings held every four years since 1924, with an 11-year break from 1936 to 1947 due to the hostilities of World War II.

Although the theme has evolved beyond just lifeboats, it maintains a focus on the common cause of saving lives at sea, advocacy and support for the development and enhancement of lifesaving organisations around the globe and for the free-sharing of lifesaving techniques, training and knowledge, as well as technical developments related to both rescue craft and equipment.

Notable highlights and achievements at these conferences are many, including the acceptance by the International Committee of the Red Cross of the immunity of lifeboats in times of armed conflict and the ability to display the red cross to signify that status.

On the technology front, there have been significant examples of international knowledge exchanges, including:

  • The introduction of diesel engines.
  • The development of twin-screw propulsion.
  • The introduction of wireless communications.
  • Using a glass of reinforced plastics and aluminium in lifeboat construction.

Two prominent examples of technology sharing were the 44-ft motor lifeboat (MLB) designed by the US Coast Guard and the inflatable rescue boat introduced by the Breton Lifesaving Society in France.

As a result of the conference, this new type of MLB was adopted for service in Great Britain and Ireland, as well as Canada, Iran, Italy and Norway. The inflatable boat, meanwhile, would lead to the development of the rigid hull inflatable boat, which has led to this type of design becoming one of the most widespread types of maritime rescue craft in use globally today.

The world’s largest motorized lifeboats on display in 1924 - the NZHRM’s Brandaris and an RNLI Barnett Class. Credit: RNLI

On the organisational front, the RNLI’s unofficial secretariate role became official at the 6th ILC in Belgium in 1951 when, at the request of the other primary members, they graciously agreed to undertake the role permanently, disseminating materials from the conferences and being the central hub of international maritime life-saving information.

Recognising the relevance of this ongoing centre of expertise, a significant milestone occurred in 1985 when the ILC was granted non-governmental consultative status by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and became an ongoing representative for all its constituent members on all things maritime SAR, including the joint ICAO/IMO working groups and meetings around international conventions relating to the safety of life at sea.

At the 16th ILC in Oslo in 1991, it was decided that the organisational body would be referred to as the International Lifeboat Federation, who would continue to organise and run the quadrennial conferences.

Following discussions at the Cape Town conference in 2003, the ILF secretariate became at arm’s length from the RNLI, forming its charity registered in the United Kingdom and establishing an external headquarters. In 2007, recognising the broader implications of maritime SAR, it was agreed that the ILF would change its name to the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) and that the quadrennial conferences would be referred to as the World Maritime Rescue Congress (WMRC), the first of which was held in Gothenburg, Sweden that year.

In August 2011, following the 2nd WMRC held in Shanghai, China, the Asia Pacific Regional Centre (APRC) of the IMRF was established, thereby adding extra capacity in this vast region to promote the common goals of the organisation.

It has been more than 185 years since the forerunner of the International Shipwreck Society was formed in Paris and it is now clear that where, despite their best intentions, these pioneers of international humanitarianism at sea failed to succeed, today’s successor has solidified its importance and role in the international maritime realm.

The need for the IMRF and its goal of saving lives at sea remains as relevant and important today as it was in the early days of sail. Although our modern world of rapid communications and enhanced interconnectivity has resolved a multitude of ‘perils of the sea’, the battle against our ever-changing environment continues justas the hazards of travelling at sea wax and wane with the geopolitics of the present day. An international humanitarian organisation with a vast global membership and a common, well-defined set of objectives, which is independent, agile and operationally focused, is a rare thing and has taken more than a century to hone.

The common bond of the lifesaver remains as true today as it was in 1924 as the vital work of the IMRF continues beyond next year and into its next century of operations, where a collective of nations and its representative organisations will continue to work together, share information and jointly pursue the cause of protecting and saving lives at sea.

Here’s to carrying on the excellent work for the next 100 years!

From now until the end of 2024 maritime historian and retired Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat coxswain Clayton Evans will look at the highlights of the IMRF’s “First Century” in a series of articles to be published on the IMRF's Centennial History Portal. You can read all of his articles and find out how to contribute here.