From wild weather to world wars – how the RNLI saved 140,000
It was a fairly routine rescue, but for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution it was a remarkable milestone.
A young man kitesurfing off the east coast of Scotland had got into trouble when his legs became entangled with the lines of his kite.
The local all-weather lifeboat, the Willie and May Gall, went to his aid. Two of the volunteer crew pulled the man on board, helped untangle him and returned him to the town of Fraserburgh.
After the lifeboat was safely back in the station, the coxswain filled out an RNLI form , recording details of the incident and whether any lives were saved – something that happens after every launch of every boat at every one of the charity's 236 stations.
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These 'service returns' are then double-checked at the RNLI headquarters in Poole and the number of lives saved is logged on a central database.
There are strict criteria that the rescue has to meet in order to qualify as a life saved. It has to be clear that if the lifeboat and its crew had not been involved, a life would have been lost.
It was this database that revealed the rescue of the kitesurfer at Fraserburgh was the charity's 140,000th life saved.
That's the equivalent of the entire population of Blackburn – or everyone who lives on the Isle of Wight.
It also works out as 745 people saved for every year the charity has been in operation, or just over two people saved every single day since the RNLI began.
The figure is in addition to thousands of other people the charity has helped in other ways. Many rescues do not qualify as 'lives saved' as the people involved were seen to be just 'at risk'.
When the RNLI was founded in 1824, every rescue was recorded by hand in large ledgers kept at each station. But in 1970, the RNLI started using a central database at its headquarters in Poole to record all operations.
Many of the 140,000 lives saved by the charity represent significant steps in the development of the RNLI.
The first life saved by an individual RNLI lifeguard, when a person was caught in a rip current at Durley Chine in Bournemouth, was on June 23, 2001 – the first year RNLI lifeguards began patrolling beaches.
Hovercrafts were introduced to the RNLI fleet in 2002 and just two years later, one of the vessels was involved in their first life-saving rescue, when four people collecting cockles were cut off by the tide at Morecambe.
The year 2002 also saw the introduction of lifeboats on the Thames in London and the first life saved by the Tower station crew was on May 9 that year.
The largest number of people saved from death in a single rescue was in March 1907.
The 12,000-ton White Star Line steamship Suevic foundered on the Maenheere Reef, a belt of half-submerged rocks a mile off the Lizard, Cornwall.
During the next 16 hours, 60 volunteer crewmen in four wooden RNLI lifeboats from the Lizard, Cadgwith, Coverack and Porthleven made multiple journeys in dense fog and towering seas to bring to safety 456 men, women and children, 60 of whom were under the age of three. Not a single life was lost.
The rescue operation involved the lifeboats rowing four miles out to the liner, which was lodged on rocks, and taking on board passengers and crew as the vessels rode the waves.
The passengers were ferried to the nearby Polpeor Cove, where women from the village of the Lizard had lit fires to guide the lifeboats and warm survivors.
Prominent among the rescuers was the Rev Harry Vyvyan, a vicar in Cadgwith and secretary of the village's lifeboat – an honorary position that did not normally involve going out to sea. But on this occasion, he was determined to take part. The official records state that he "assisted generally and superintended taking the passengers on board". Six RNLI silver medals were awarded for gallantry.
Women have also taken part in perilous rescues and the charity has awarded medals for bravery to 22 women.
Of these, 19 were presented in the 19th century, when there were no female lifeboat crew.
These medals went to women who used their own initiative to carry out rescues in rowing boats or to aid people who had been shipwrecked. The first was Grace Darling, famous for taking part in a rescue of people shipwrecked near the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland in 1838.
More recently, Aileen Jones, a crewmember and helmsman at Porthcawl lifeboat station, Wales, was awarded an RNLI bronze medal for gallantry in 2005, for her part in the rescue of two fishermen. Aileen, a mother of two and a nursery assistant, was the first woman in 116 years to be given such an accolade.
And earlier this year, Nicola-Jane Bradbury, 40, of Port Isaac, was awarded the bronze medal for her part in a rescue of two people who had been swept into rough water very close to dangerous cliffs. Two of her fellow crew were also rewarded.
Volunteer crews continued to save lives during both World Wars, when the average age of members rose dramatically due to the number of young men away fighting.
In September 1918, the Lowestoft lifeboat Kentwell undertook a five-hour rescue. Four of the volunteers were aged over 50, twelve over 60 and two in their 70s.
Between 1914 and 1918, the RNLI saved 173 ships and 5,032 lives. But there was a cost – 21 lifeboatmen drowned, four lifeboats were lost and 22 were seriously damaged.
Despite the wartime blackout, which meant no coastal lights or navigational aids, one notable rescue saved lives in October 1914.
The Rohilla hospital ship was on her way to Dunkirk when she was driven on to rocks in a gale off the east coast of England. There were 229 people on board – mainly crew and medical staff. One of them, a nurse called Mary Roberts, had survived the sinking of the Titanic a few years earlier.
Within seconds of striking the rocks, the ship broke in two and 85 people were swept away and drowned.
In what witnesses described as "hellish" conditions, six lifeboats from five RNLI stations struggled for over two-and-a-half days to rescue survivors.
The bravery and grit of the rescuers resulted in three gold and five silver medals.
During the Second World War, the charity saved 6,376 lives, many of whom were downed airmen, both British and German, and in 1940, the Ramsgate and Margate lifeboats helped in the evacuation of Dunkirk.
A memorable rescue in 1944 saw the Mumbles lifeboat make 12 successive approaches before getting the 42 crew off the Chebogue, a torpedoed frigate driven by a hurricane on to rocks near Port Talbot.
The average age of the Mumbles crew was 55, and three of them, including coxswain William Gammon, were awarded RNLI gold medals.
The end of the war might have meant a happy retirement for these men, but for many of them, this was not the case. In 1947, the Mumbles lifeboat was wrecked, with no survivors. The station's next lifeboat was named William Gammon after the heroic coxswain the community had lost.
After the war, the charity began experiments to find out if it would be possible to replace petrol-driven engines with diesel, which was more economical and less flammable. The tests proved successful and the number of diesel-powered lifeboats went from 11 in 1951 to 122 ten years later.
The 1970s was a difficult time for the RNLI. Accidents at Fraserburgh, Arbroath, Scarborough, Brought Ferry, Seaham and Longhope led to the loss of six boats and 36 lifeboatmen.
RNLI designers came up with plans for more modern lifeboats and nowadays, all all-weather lifeboats are self-righting, while the smaller inshore lifeboats can be righted by the crew, making them much safer.
The 1960s and 70s also saw the introduction of inflatable boats to the RNLI fleet. The first Atlantic 21 inflatable boats came into operation in 1972 and in their first 20 years of service they saved nearly 5,000 lives. These smaller, faster boats proved ideal for working close to shore, rescuing swimmers, surfers, sailors and dog-walkers – and their dogs, too.
During the post-war era there was a change in the type of people the RNLI were called to save. As well as going to the aid of fishermen and merchant seamen, the lifeboat crews were increasingly being asked to help holidaymakers.
By 1985, 77 per cent of all launches were in the summer months. A century earlier, 74 per cent of launches had been in the winter.
Over the last 20 years, the RNLI has continued to develop, with the introduction of lifeguards, hovercraft and lifeboats on the Thames in London and it now has its own Flood Rescue Team, made up of specially trained volunteers, most recently seen in action in St Asaph, Wales.
In all these different forms, the charity that saves lives at sea continues to rescue thousands of people every year.
Looking to the future, the RNLI is now producing a new lifeboat, the Shannon, which will be the first modern all-weather lifeboat to run on water jets rather than propellers.
This will allow the vessel to operate in shallow waters and to be intentionally beached. The first Shannon is expected to be operational in 2013.
The charity has also drawn up plans to bring the future production and maintenance of all-weather lifeboats in-house to its Poole headquarters in Dorset.
RNLI Trustees, who have given their approval, hope the project will be given the go-ahead as it will save millions in public donations each year, as well as creating 90 new jobs.
Subject to planning approval, work at the Holes Bay site, next to the RNLI College, would start in 2013, with the first phase of operations beginning by spring 2014.