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

One of the preeminent topics at the International Lifeboat Conferences (ILCs), from their inception in 1924 to the present day, is that of rescue craft design and development. Before the advent of helicopters, the “life” boat was the main tool in the arsenal of the world’s coastal lifesaving organisations and 1924 was not that far removed from the age of oars and sail on sturdy wooden lifeboats and these venerable craft would continue to serve for decades to come in many jurisdictions.

One of the key developments in lifeboat design around the turn of the 20th Century was the introduction of mechanized propulsion, including steam and early gasoline engines. In the 1890’s, several early steam-powered lifeboats (SLBs) had been built for service with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in the UK, two of which were exported for use in Australia, and the South Holland Institution for Saving the Shipwrecked (ZHRM) in the Netherlands constructed two, one of which, the President van Heel, remained in service right up till 1931.[i]

Although these SLBs allowed for longer transits, they were costly to maintain and rather large and cumbersome to maneuver, given that some were propelled by the original use of “hydraulic” power, or water-jets. Immediately after 1900, several countries, including the USA, Great Britain, Germany and France began experimenting with new lightweight “petrol” engines in existing pulling and sailing lifeboats, with the first “purpose-built” motor lifeboat (MLB) being developed by the United States Lifesaving Service (USLSS) in 1908. It should be noted that the reference to these new engines being “lightweight” is an interesting one given that the forerunner to the new American MLB had a 12 horse-power engine that weighed a whopping 680 kg (1,500 lbs)![ii]

By 1924 and the 100th Anniversary celebrations for the founding of the RNLI, a “Conference on the World’s Life-boat Service” was held – this being the 1st ILC. Eight countries attended, several of whom brought their newest and most technically advanced lifeboats and moored them for public viewing prior to a parade down the Thames. The arrival of these vessels and the papers presented at the conference, some of which related to these craft, laid the foundation for one of the key missions of the conferences moving forward, which was the free sharing of information amongst like-minded organisations on the best means of saving lives at sea – and so it began.

By the 1920’s internal combustion motors were becoming standard equipment in most of the world’s primary lifesaving services. In one of the papers presented at the 1924 conference, F. Rubie, the RNLI’s Surveyor of Life-boats, had the foresight to spell out where this technology was likely to go, stating;

The future lies with the Motor Life-boat…I venture to suggest that there are many ways in which the mechanically-propelled boat may develop as the result of experience, and to meet conditions which are at present out of sight.”[iii]

In the 1924 lifeboat parade, which was said to have “created much interest,” this mechanized wave of the future was already in evidence, with larger MLBs in attendance, including the RNLI’s 60 ft (18.3 m) Barnett-Class and the North and South Holland Lifeboat Institution’s (NZHRM) second Brandaris, also at 60 ft (18.3 m). These were essentially small seagoing ships, with enclosed decks and incorporating “twin-screw” propulsion, with two separate engines and transmissions, which allowed for greater maneuverability and the safety of redundancy should one of the engines fail.

In addition, the French sent their latest 36ft (11 m) twin-screw lifeboat stationed at Calais, the Danish service displayed a lifeboat with an auxiliary motor and the Swedish service brought a “cruising” lifeboat which was primarily propelled by sail but had an auxiliary motor. The lone hold outs on mechanization were the Norwegians, who sent one of their beautiful Colin Archer-designed ketch-rigged sailing lifeboats.[iv] In fact the Norwegian Life-boat Society (NSSR) would maintain sail as their primary motive power for many years to come, which was not unusual given that their rescue craft were sometimes sent to patrol offshore following the fishing fleets for several days at a time as “cruising” lifeboats. To round things off the ZHRM’s venerable SLB, the President van Heel, which had saved hundreds of lives over it’s then 30 years of service, also joined the flotilla.

The NZHRM’s cruising MLB Brandaris II. Credit: KNRM

One interesting paper that was presented by the RNLI’s Consulting Naval Architect, J.R. Barnett, was entitled, “Self-righting and Non self-righting Life-boats,” argued that self-righting lifeboats were not necessarily the best model for every location and that, specifically, they were not “deep-water” boats. This assertion resulted in a very fruitful discussion amongst the attendees and Hendrick de Booy, Secretary of the NZHRM, presented a counter argument that the size of the vessel and the fact that it worked in deep water did not negate the need and ability to self-right and that a new 62 ft (18.9 m) MLB of 42 tons displacement was presently being designed by his organisation. Thus began a positive and well-intentioned debate that would go on for many years to come.

Specifications of the RNLI’s large Barnett-Class MLB. Credit: Eric C. Fry

At the 2nd ILC held in Paris in 1928 and hosted by the Société Centrale de Sauvetages des Naufragés (SNSM) where several new countries attended, including Latvia, Spain, Poland, Finland, Greece, Turkey and the U.S.S.R., the NZHRM presented a paper on this new large self-righting MLB called the Insulinde, which had been launched in 1927. Revolutionary features of this vessel, some of which would become standard features in future rescue craft, were her “submarine-like” rounded gunwales for water drainage, her enclosed “conning tower-like” wheelhouse with a small open or “flying” bridge, and as mentioned, her integral ability to be both a large MLB and to self-right using a water ballast “kip-tank.” The operational concept for this vessel was that it could be launched from a harbour during the worst of conditions but also had the endurance to remain on station or outside of the harbour until the conditions improved, as opposed to smaller vessels, both MLBs and human and sail powered, which could not stay out and ran the risk of capsize while returning across river bars while the weather was still foul and the crew likely very fatigued.[v]

Another significant development in rescue craft design presented in 1928 came from Germany when J.Rösing, General Secretary of the Deutsche Gessellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS) presented a paper on the use of new “crude oil diesel engines” in their most recent twin screw, steel-hulled MLBs. This was, of course, the first use of diesel engines in rescue craft, probably the most common form of mechanized propulsion in use today. Mr. Rösing ended his paper with a statement that summed up the free-ranging informational intent of the ILC, stating;

…life-saving is an international matter in the highest degree. It therefore seems to us to be a law of that humanity which unites all nations in a common bond that the life-saving communities of the whole world should exchange their experiences, including the adverse ones, and thus aid in promoting enhanced security to the people of all nations by enabling assistance and help of the best possible description to be rendered on any and every coast whenever there is shipping in distress.[vi] 

At the 3rd ILC held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1932 and the 4th ILC held in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1936, more innovations in rescue craft design were presented and their merits shared. This included the NZHRM presenting a paper on early experiments with wireless communications in lifeboats (more on this in a future article) as well as the development of even lighter, more powerful and reliable diesel engines in the RNLI’s lifeboat fleet. Another first, was presented at the 1936 gathering by Secretary H. TH. de Booy, when he outlined the use of continuous rubber fixed fenders on motor lifeboats to absorb the shock of coming alongside vessels in distress in a seaway. This feature, is standard on almost all rescue craft to this day, whether still rubber or some other form of flexible composite.[vii]

Other important papers of note on the technical front included one on the use of tunnels in hull design to protect shafts, propellors and rudders on rescue craft, particularly when striking the bottom and discussions about higher speed diesels and the “need for speed” in lifesaving, with the RNLI having had the Thorneycroft Yard build one of the world’s first high-speed rescue craft, a 64 ft (19.5 m) vessel, which could cruise at 18 knots and which was stationed at Dover.

The RNLI’s “high-speed Dover Lifeboat". Credit: RNLI

Due to the vagaries of the Second World War, there would not be another lifeboat conference for 11 years until Oslo in 1947 where much of the discussion related to post-war reconstruction. At the 6th ILC held in Belgium in 1951, the issue of greater speed was again at the forefront, Captain Hans Hansson, Managing Director of the Swedish Sea Rescue Society (SSRS) presenting a paper entitled Can the Motor Life-Boat be Made Faster? Citing the success of the high-speed air-sea rescue launches that were used by both sides for life-saving during the war Captain Hansson offered up a technological challenge to all of the organisations attending;

Is it not possible, with the aid of modern technical resources, to revolutionize the sea rescue service by building lifeboats which make 20 or 30 knots but which are still fully seaworthy in all weathers, and on board of which it will be possible to remain in all weather without reducing speed?

Other notable papers presented at this conference from a technical design and development perspective included one from Sweden on the introduction of RADAR another on one of their new cruising lifeboats and one from the United States Coast Guard (USCG) entitled Plastic Lifeboats which described in great detail the potential use of glass reinforced plastics (GRP) or fibreglass in rescue craft construction – another initial wave of the future.[viii]

Swedish “cruising” MLB with auxiliary sail power and the new RADAR. Credit: RNLI (ILC papers)

Faster rescue craft, remained a recurring theme and at the 7th ILC held in Estoril, Portugal in 1955 the USCG described their experience with a new 40 ft (12.2m) “utility boat”, or UTB, which could cruise at over 20 knots and, after building a prototype out of both wood and steel, the latter version had been chosen for a number of factors, not the least of which was the lack of suitable materials, the ease of mass construction and the ability to better withstand impacts. It should be noted that the debate over whether lifeboats and other rescue craft should be constructed out of wood or steel was another “long-winded” discussion going back to the original conferences with “tried and proven” holding out for many a year.

The new USCG 52 foot MLB, the first large “surfboat” with a steel hull and aluminium house-works. Credit: USCG

At the 8th ILC held in Bremen, Germany in 1959, Captain Hansson’s previous request for the development of a large, fast, all-weather boat came to fruition in the form of The New Rescue Cruiser which was presented at the conference in a paper by Captain John Schumacher, Inspector of the DGzRS. The first vessel of this type was the Theodore Heuss which incorporated many of the afore-mentioned developments in rescue craft design that had been outlined or proposed at previous conferences all in one package.

This vessel, which was designed to be a “cruising” lifeboat in the Scandinavian and Dutch traditions was revolutionary in that at over 23 m (75 ft) in length, she was self-righting and capable of cruising speeds of 20 knots for extended periods. She was triple-screwed, equipped with RADAR and carried a small 6.5 m (21.5 ft) “daughter boat”, which could be launched and recovered via a stern ramp with hydraulic doors. The addition of this secondary, small lifeboat allowed the crew to do inshore work without placing the larger vessel in harm’s way. Another interesting development was the science used to develop the new vessel’s “Maierform” hull, this being one of the first rescue craft to have extensive tank testing done on a model version, the result being a very seaworthy design that could both operate at high speeds and in the worst of conditions[ix]

The new German “rescue cruiser” Theodore Heuss. Credit: RNLI (ILC papers)

It should be noted that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the many developments in rescue craft design which occurred from to 1924 to 1959 and many other organisations and coastal states provided ample papers and discussions on the latest trends in their jurisdictions. This is but a cross-section of some of the more significant “firsts” in rescue craft design that were presented through the evolving stage of the quadrennial international lifeboat conferences and were the forerunners of many more to come.

The goal of the federation and its members was and is to foster international cooperation to save lives at sea in the safest and most efficient manner and in Part Two of this article we will discuss many more revolutionary features in rescue craft design that were shared from the 9th ILC held in Edinburgh, Scotland onwards.

[i] Vandermissen, Zeeman, Brinkman. ‘Summaries in English’, in Lifesavers, 175 Years of the Royal Dutch Lifesaving Institution, 1824-1999 ( Wormer, Inmerc, 1999).

[ii] McLellan, ‘The Evolution of the Lifeboat’, Marine Engineering (January 1906), 7-11.

[iii] F. Rubie Esq., M.I.N.A., ‘Sailing Life-boats and Motor Life-boats’, Report of the 1st International Lifeboat Conference, London (1924), p.10.

[iv] Oliver Warner, The Lifeboat Service; A History of the RNLI, 1824 – 1974, London, 1974. P.117.

[v] H. De Booy, ‘Description of the Twin-Screw Self-Righting MLB Insulinde ’, Report of the 1st International Lifeboat Conference, Paris (1924), 53-61.

[vi] J. Rosing Esq., ‘Motor Lifeboats Stationed on the German Coast, with Special Reference to the Latest Boats fitted with Crude Oil Diesel Engines’, Report of the 2nd International Lifeboat Conference, Paris (1928), 29.

[vii] H. Th. De Booy, ‘Rubber Fenders for MLBs’, Report of the 4th International Lifeboat Conference, Göteborg(1936), 189-92.

[viii] R.T. Alexander, ‘Plastic Life-Boats’, Report of the 6th International Lifeboat Conference, Ostend (1951), p.117-136.

[ix] Capt. John Schumacher, ‘The New Rescue Cruiser’, Report of the 8th International Lifeboat Conference, Bremen (1959), 93.