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

There has been rigorous and productive debate on the merits of new technical developments in rescue craft design during the last century of international maritime SAR cooperation promoted by the International Lifeboat Federation (ILF) and the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF). The result, in most cases, has been an acceptance of varying opinion, a recognition that operating requirements and conditions vary from state to state and that, through concerted discussions and the resulting research and development, well-rounded solutions to particular problems can be achieved.

The debate over the need and application of the ability of rescue craft to “self-right” in the event of capsize raged for many years, including with presentations made at the first International Lifeboat Conference (ILC) held in London in 1924. This discussion did not begin there, however. As far back as 1765, an inventor in Paris named Bernières constructed a ‘canot insubmersible’ that was tested on the Seine and purported to be not “…overset or sunk by winds, waves, water-spouts, or too heavy a load”, not to mention unsinkable.[i] In the 1780s an Englishman named Lukin began developing and experimenting with a design of ‘unimmergible boat’ based on a Norwegian yawl design, with the addition of a heavy keel and air cases.

An early depiction of Henry Greathead’s ‘Original’ lifeboat. Credit: Author’s Collection

Given that the first organised lifeboat stations were being established around Europe during this period, and that the excessive loss of both lifeboat and ship’s crews was continuing almost unabated, considerable interest was placed on developing safer coastal lifesaving craft, including with the ability to re-right themselves in the event of capsize. In 1789 a lifeboat design competition was held in northeast England that resulted in a much safer design of ‘purpose-built’ lifeboat constructed by Henry Greathead, which, although inherently difficult to overset, was not self-righting (SR). Following further loss of crews and casualties from non-SR lifeboats in Great Britain, another design competition was sponsored by Algernon, Duke of Northumberland, in 1851, with one of the parameters being the “Power of self-righting.”[ii]. The eventual result of this competition was the development of the “standard” SR lifeboat of the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

A Standard Self-Righting lifeboat of the RNLI designed to be launched and recovered by a carriage in surf conditions. Credit: Author’s Collection.

The number of these new SR lifeboats spread rapidly within the RNLI, as well as being constructed and exported to many developing lifeboat services around the globe. The design was not without its detractors, however, and many stations throughout the service preferred to retain their traditional, more inherently stable, non-SR lifeboats, some referring to the SR lifeboats as ’self capsizers’[iii]. 

The primary bone of contention, and one which carried on to the debates at the first ILC in 1924, was that the SR lifeboat was essentially a shallow water boat. Due to its narrow beam and very low centre of gravity, it was extremely “lively” in a seaway. As such, even though it had the inherent ability to self-  right owing to these design factors, coupled with multiple air cases and the ability to self-bail, it was also more likely to capsize in the first place. Many coxswains and crew continued to prefer the low, beamy and stable lifeboats that were similar in design to their local working craft and the institution’s designers focused on developing lifeboats with similar qualities. Several SR lifeboats did capsize with significant loss of life and by the 1880s the concept was being reviewed and, ultimately, a move towards larger, beamier non-SR vessels began to take place, including the Watson type. The consensus was that the SR lifeboat remained the best option for particular locations where a smaller and lighter lifeboat was required, particularly for being launched by a carriage from shore and having to transit through breaking surf and over shallow water. Beyond that the ability to self-right was particular to only these vessels, as the preferred non-SRs would not be able to incorporate such features due to their width and length, as well as their need for inherent stability and their preference as “deepwater” boats. That said, by 1910, there were still twice as many SR lifeboats in service as non-SR, although the number of the latter was growing.[iv]

A line-drawing of a more inherently stable non-SR Watson lifeboat of the RNLI. Credit: Eric Fry, RNLI.

At the first ILC the varying opinions on the subject would converge. the RNLI’s consulting naval architect, J.R. Barnett presented a paper entitled “Self-righting and Non-self-righting Life-boats”, which  accepted that there was and always would be a need for SR lifeboats, with the caveat that, in his opinion:

“A self-righting lifeboat is essentially a shallow-water boat, and the self-righting principle ought to be confined to comparatively small and light boats. In fact, the Self-Righting Boat has been devised simply because deep-water boats were impossible in certain places, and as long as lifeboats are required on coasts where there is shallow water, the self-righting type may be expected to survive.” [v]

The responses to this assertion were many, with several essentially in agreement. The delegate from France, M. le Commandant Le Verger, stated:

“In France, we have after considerable experience, gradually decided to abandon the self-righting principle, except in cases where the boats have to cross a bar.[vi]

Captain Saxild from Denmark was much more emphatic, referring to trials several decades earlier. He noted:

“We built three (SRs) but the men did not go out in them. After we had them in service for two or three years they were put aside, and we have never taken on the principle again.[vii]

Ottar Vogt from the Norwegian Lifeboat Service held a similar opinion, even more direct in that:

“We have had an exercise with a self-righting boat. She went over and since then we have never used this type.”

Those in the opposite camp, who were in support of SR lifeboats for a wide variety of coastal and sea conditions, included the delegate from the United States who stated that the US Coast Guard (USCG) found the SR principle to be a “…very valuable thing.”[viii] 

More importantly, however, was the very respectful disagreement coming from Hendrick De Booy, Secretary of the North and South Holland Lifeboat Institution (NZHRM) to Barnett’s assertions. De Booy noted:

“I should like to add my remarks that in Holland the Self-Righting Boat is not essentially a shallow-water boat. It is also a deep-water boat. Much depends upon what you regard as shallow or deep.[ix]

As mentioned in Rescue Craft Part 1 of this series [LINK], De Booy’s assertions were based on technical developments taking place in his institution and the plan to build a new large motor lifeboat (MLB) which was an inherently stable deep-water boat, but also incorporated the ability to SR in the event of capsize. By the second ILC held in Paris in 1928, this new large SR, the Insulinde, had been in service for almost a year.

At 62 ft (18.9 m) long, with a beam of just over 13 ft (4 m), this new MLB had a length-to breadth ratio of 3.86, significantly less than the average 4.64 of earlier large non-SR MLBs in the Netherlands and Britain. Built of mild steel, the thickness of the bottom plating was significantly increased from previous Dutch MLBs, serving first to strengthen the bottom of the boat, and secondly, to increase the weight towards the keel. Along with the narrower beam the extra weight was essential for SR as was the new ‘kiptank,’ designed to fill rapidly after capsizing and provide the additional momentum to re-right the boat from the inverted position.

It was powered by two 60 hp ‘heavy oil motors’, which, because of the narrow beam, were placed in isolated engine compartments positioned diagonally, one ahead of the other and allowed the vessel to cruise at 9.25 kt. This was also the first MLB to have a ‘boiler type’ hull that helped create the lifeboat’s submarine-like appearance. The semi-rounded decks, particularly pronounced along the sheer-strake, became a common feature on future large lifeboats in the Netherlands and Germany. They allowed water to flow off the deck in rapid fashion, an important feature for inshore rescue craft that often find themselves more beneath than above the water. It also had stanchions and hand-railings placed a considerable distance inboard from the sides of the vessel, another first that would be seen on many future lifeboats, particularly those commonly used in breaking seas. With its narrow, torpedo-like appearance, its crew nicknamed the Insulinde the ‘ballasted bottle’. Although its narrow beam and SR features did not make it the most comfortable boat in a seaway, it always came back. All the large Dutch MLBs of the next 40 years would be basic derivations of the Insulinde.

The conundrum of combining the ability to self-right into the design characteristics of a deep-water MLB had been solved and through the auspices of the ILC and the innovation of its members, the concept had been proven and shared.

Over the next several decades, other maritime rescue organisations around the globe continued to develop the SR capabilities of their lifeboat fleets and in many cases, where dedicated rescue craft were concerned, would ensure that almost their entire fleet was SR. In Germany, in 1959, the Deutsche Gessellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger (DGzRS), following many experiments on older MLBs, launched the Theodore Heuss, the first of a long line of “rescue cruisers” where the SR tendency of the boat was not dependent on any water-ballast arrangements but was a factor of the design itself. The combination of the vessel’s low centre of gravity, the large amount of positive buoyancy within the hull and the prominent, enclosed wheelhouse all served to assist in re-righting. On this particular vessel, the Germans also solved the age-old conundrum of whether a SR vessel was inherently a deep or shallow watercraft by incorporating a smaller SR daughter-boat (tochter-boot) for close inshore work, which could be launched and recovered from the deepwater mother ship on a stern-launch apparatus.

In the United States, following the tragic loss of a lifeboat crew on a non-SR MLB in 1961 off the Columbia River Bar, a decision was made by the USCG that all dedicated SAR lifeboats would have the ability to self-right. One of the results of this move was the development of a new, faster, inherently SR MLB known as the “44-Footer”, which could operate in both deep and shallow water..

In 1958, the RNLI launched the first of a new generation of all-weather, SR MLBs, known as the Oakley Class, with its own version of a “kiptank”, followed by several other derivations of this type. The ultimate goal was to have an entirely SR fleet by the end of the 1980s. In the lifeboat fleets of today, including many inshore recue craft, the ability to self-right is now considered to be a standard feature of all new designs.

A self-righting USCG 47-Foot MLB knocked on its ‘beam ends’ in breaking surf. Credit: USCG

Having served many years on SR MLBs in all forms of sea and weather conditions, it has always been a comforting thing to know, that in that worst-case scenario, if and when a breaking sea catches you and your crew off guard and white water lays your vessel on her side, or attempts to turn your vessel bottom side up, that these engineers and innovators of the past had the foresight to incorporate the ability to self-right into the vessel your life, and that of others, depends on.

This all-important safety feature came from years of development and research, all willingly shared by different nations for the benefit of all.

In the words of the RNLI’s Barnett at the opening of the first ILC in 1924, “We are here to learn … and we are anxious to give what information we have.”

[i]Noel T. Methley, The Life-Boat and Its Story (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1912), p.40.

[ii] Great Britain, Admiralty, Duke of Northumberland Competition; Report of the Committee… (London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1851).

[iii] RNLI, Right Way Up; The Story of the Self-Righting Lifeboat (Pamphlet for the Special Exhibition at the Science Museum, S. Kensington, 1978), p.2.

[iv] E.W. Middleton, Lifeboats of the World (New York: Arco Publishing, 1978), p.96

[v] J.R. Barnett, ‘Self-Righting & Non-Self-Righting Lifeboats’, Report of the 1stInternational Lifeboat Conference, London


[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

[ix] Ibid