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PANORAMA: 1996

National Service: A High Risk Affair
by Martin Revis

Bleeping from pocket pagers, sometimes dramatised by the bang of an exploding rocket launched from the seafront, spells adventure for more than 4000 volunteers living close by the coasts of the British Isles.

June, July, August and September are the busiest months for the lifeboat men and women who crew the 290 rescue vessels on standby at 215 stations run by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), the world's oldest national service.

As a charity the RNLI relies upon voluntary contributions to meet all its expenditure for United Kingdom operations which this year will cost 63 million.


The RNLI's fast-moving Trent Class lifeboat, capable of 25 knots, represents one of the new generation of British designs featuring a lightweight hull, deck and superstructure of fibre reinforced composite sandwich construction.

Crews must turn out for training sessions as well as emergency launches, which reached a record 7312 in 1995. Apart from the full-time mechanic who sails aboard every large allweather vessel, crews receive only reimbursement of their expenses for their time-consuming and sometimes dangerous work. It can involve rescues in seas at sub-zero temperatures and force 7 gales up to 50 miles (80 kms) from the coast, the distance to which the RNLI has given an undertaking to government to provide a service around the clock. Even so there has never been a shortage of candidates in the organisation's 172 year history.

The attraction could be the chance to serve others in a role offering kudos within the community. Adventurous spirits may also welcome an exciting challenge to interrupt the humdrum daily routine.

Although some 400 volunteers have lost their lives since nationally organised operations began in 1824, fatalities are now rare thanks to the design of all-weather self-righting lifeboats capable of 25 knots. The last major disaster was at Penlee in Cornwall, southwest England, 15 years ago when a lifeboat was smashed to pieces against rocks after it returned for a second time to take survivors off a wrecked coaster.

Emergency Calls
News of trouble at sea usually comes first from coastguard stations which monitor distress frequencies and also answer emergency calls from the public. Coastguards alert the nearest lifeboat station duty officer who in turn musters the crew.

Lifeboat crews are entitled to make salvage claims on vessels saved, but this rarely happens. Over the past few years less than one claim has been entered annually from more than 1,500 eligible cases.

Last year 1634 people were rescued from situations in which the RNLI assessed they would otherwise have lost their lives. Just over half the launches, which averaged 20 daily and were up by a fifth on 1994, were for pleasure craft. A third took place in darkness. There were 1200 rescues involving merchant ships, tankers and fishing vessels. Inshore lifeboats were called out on 150 occasions to assist swimmers, water-skiers and people cut off by the tide.

Fifteen rescue craft used by the RNLI over the past century can be seen at "Lifeboat!," a permanent gallery which opened in June at the Chatham Historic Dockyard in southeast England. This former Royal Naval base has been transformed over ten years into an 80 acre (32 hectare) tourist attraction. Exhibits tell the story of warship building on the site over 400 years including the Ocelot, the last submarine to be launched at Chatham.

Design Problems
Visitors can try solving lifeboat design problems by floating miniatures in a test tank and climb aboard some retired full-size models. The most recent is the 31-tonne 16 m Arun class capable of 17 knots, last built five years ago, and currently being phased out in favour of the 17 m Severn, costing 1.5 million, which is due to enter service later this year after design modifications.

Self-righting after capsize, it is built like its smaller sister, the Trent from relatively light weight fibre reinforced composite. Both are capable of 25 knots and have a range of 250 nautical miles. The pair are designed to meet the RNLI's declared aim of being able to reach almost any point up to 50 miles off the coast by the turn of the century, a one third increase on the current goal.

The technical department of the RNLI, which designs and develops all its craft, is based at the headquarters at Poole on England's south coast, where the secretariat of the International Lifeboat Federation is also housed. The Federation meets every four years to exchange information and negotiate sales of redundant boats. The last conference was held in Uruguay, where several former RNLI vessels now ply the River Plate and the Punta del Este. Britain is to host the next worldwide gathering in1999.

As the seaways become more crowded with traffic ranging from windsurfers to tankers, the RNLI is devoting more of its budget - to its safety at sea initiative run in association with the coastguard and the shipping industry.

For more information contact:
Royal National Lifeboat Institution
West Quay Road, Poole, Dorset, United Kingdom, BH15 1Hz
The Historic Dockyard, Chatham, Kent, United Kingdom, ME4 4TE

  

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