Celebrating nearly two centuries of selfless bravery at sea
SINCE it was founded in 1824, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has had a long and courageous association with the Highlands and Islands. From early open lifeboats powered by volunteer oarsmen through self-righting hulls and unsinkable craft, lifesaving crews have rescued hundreds of vessels and thousands of people. The debt owed by those rescued over the past 192 years is incalculable, as is the value of saved vessels and cargoes assisted to port.
Today the RNLI remains a voluntary organisation dedicated to saving lives, and is dependent on donations for its funds. In addition to 24-hour search and rescue and lifeguard services, the RNLI relies on public support to meet the costs of research, development and building of boats, fuel and equipment; and engineering and administrative personnel. In 2014, running costs were approximately £150 million.
In Argyll and the Isles we are lucky to have RNLI stations in Campbeltown, Rhu, Port Askaig, Oban, Tighnabruaich and Tobermory. The combined patch includes international shipping lanes and some of the busiest and most popular recreational boating areas in the world – a coastline measured in thousands of miles.
RNLI missions have been launched from Campbeltown Harbour since 1872. The navigation around the Mull of Kintyre continues to challenge all craft, and hazards and weather have claimed millions of tonnes of shipping and hundreds of lives in the past 200 years.
That these tolls would have been greater if the RNLI had not responded to distress calls is incontrovertible, and the waters around Kintyre are nowadays afforded the protection of lifeboat crews with a distinguished record.
RNLI inshore lifeboat stations are operational at Rhu on the Clyde and Tighnabruaich in the Kyles of Bute. With 80 years of service between the stations, modern B- class Atlantic 75 inshore lifeboats (ILBs) are designed for very fast response.
They are rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIBs), crewed by three volunteers and capable of 32 knots (around 37 miles per hour) in very shallow water. These boats are equipped with up-to- date communications and electronic navigation aids, searchlights and night-vision equipment. Gas-activated self-righting bags ensure the lifeboats recover from capsizing in seconds.
An RNLI lifeboat has been stationed at Port Askaig on Islay for more than 70 years. Tobermory lifeboat station opened in 1938, closed in 1947 and was recommissioned in 1990. Both stations are home to Severn- class all-weather lifeboats (ALBs) – fully automatic self-righting vessels requiring crews of seven and capable of 25 knots (approximately 29 miles per hour).
In addition to state- of-the-art electronics, the Severn- class vessels carry full first aid equipment, a portable salvage pump and a small boat that can be deployed for rescue operations in places the mothership cannot reach. Severn- class lifeboats can accommodate 124 survivors.
Oban lifeboat station was established in 1972. An 18ft McLachlan inshore lifeboat was intended to provide safety cover from March to November only. Six years later a Watson- class ALB entered service and covered the patch with distinction until an intermediate Brede- class was introduced in 1982. Fifteen years later the Brede- class was replaced with the new Trent- class ALB. In 2000, this particular vessel and crew distinguished themselves as the first all-weather lifeboat in the British Isles to launch on more than 100 services. Eleven years later, RNLB Mora Edith
MacDonald entered a new record when the first boy was born aboard.
As a region with an ancient seafaring history in an island nation, the volunteer services and heroic actions of the RNLI cannot be overlooked or overstated. People often ask why this essential service is not funded by government.
If it was, it would be a potential victim of partisan imperatives and ruthless political point- scoring. If it was, the RNLI would be subject to unhelpful financial decisions and unnecessary operational interference. It would become depressingly bureaucratic and hopelessly inefficient.
Long may the lifeboats and their selfless crews be driven by the fundamental human desire to save lives; and to assist people in difficulty without regard for personal safety. It works, and it works for everybody.
Far right: Mull residents gather to pose for the camera at a charitable donation to Tobermory lifeboat.
Right: Willie Dunn, Alastair Barker, Annette Joubert, Tom Johnstone and D McDonald from Islay.
Alick MacLellan, from Oban lifeboat, demonstrates night-vision equipment.