RNLI commemorates 100 years of tractor launched lifeboats

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has been looking back at the first tractors used to launch lifeboats a century ago and how their technology has advanced to help save lives at sea.

It says that, while the lifeboat and crew might get the public’s attention, the tractor and the shore crew are the unsung heroes who more than pull their weight – literally.

This year marks 100 years since the RNLI introduced tractors to launch its lifeboats and the technology nowadays – with the very latest Shannon Launch and Recovery System (SLRS) – is unrecognisable to all those years ago.

Prior to the 1920s, it wasn’t unusual to see horses being used to pull lifeboats through local communities to reach a point where they could safely be launched.

In 1920, Captain Howard FJ Rowley, RNLI chief inspector of lifeboats said: “If we can find a mechanical means for launching, we shall greatly increase the efficiency, certainty and speed of the service.”

That year, a 35hp Clayton Caterpillar Tractor was trialled at Hunstanton Beach in Norfolk over flat sands, sand dunes and rocky ground. Despite the tractor once becoming submerged in water, the launch was successful using only crew and four helpers, where under ordinary conditions such a launch would require eight or 10 horses and as many helpers.

A year later, the RNLI had purchased 20 Clayton Caterpillar Tractors, adapted and distributed them to stations.

By 1928, the four-wheel drive tractor with a 60hp petrol engine, which could cope with steep shingle beaches, was also in service.

Hastings Oakley class being beach launched

Working jointly with engineering companies to adapt agricultural tractors, over the years the RNLI introduced new, more powerful and waterproof tractors to launch lifeboats as quickly and safely as possible. Though some lifeboats are kept afloat at a station, others are in boathouses and need transporting across beaches and down slipways before entering the sea.

By the late 1940s, 16 Case L tractors had been built and in the 1950s the Challenger III diesel crawler tractor was constructed, powerful enough to meet the demands of launching the heavy 11m Oakley class lifeboat.

Relief Oakley class and tractor

The 1960s and 70s saw more Case tractor models, including the Case 1150 tractor with a watertight cab and some with a bulldozer blade to flatten beaches.

Criccieth C class being launched
Image courtesy of David E Jenkins

In the 1970s, the first of the Talus tractors were brought in, to launch inshore lifeboats. Then, in the 1980s, earlier tractors began to be replaced by the Talus MB-H, a vehicle designed jointly with Mike Bigland (Preparations) Ltd. It was the first vehicle to be purpose-designed for launching lifeboats, rather than being an adaptation of an existing tractor design.

In 1990, the Talus MB-4H, powered by a 105hp turbo diesel engine was developed. Known as the ‘bendy’, it launches B class inshore lifeboats. There’s also the Talus MB-764, which is based on a Ford County tractor with a watertight shell, which launches both B class and D class lifeboats. Softrak and Tooltrak vehicles, and the Haegglund BV also launch inshore lifeboats.

One of the latest launch and recovery vehicles started in operation at Seahouses RNLI, in Northumberland on the north east coast in December.

Susan Calvert, a driver at Seahouses, follows in the footsteps of tractor drivers in her family including her dad, uncle and grandfather.

“We have to take the boat out of the boathouse and across the harbour before we can launch it,” Calvert says. “Without the tractor, the boat wouldn’t be able to launch at all. We’re all working together as one big team.”

Calvert is now training to operate the SLRS unit – the latest innovation in launch and recovery tractors.

The SLRS rig was designed in conjunction with Supacat, a Devon-based company, and there are now 22 SLRS units in service. Acting as a mobile slipway for the Shannon, it launches the lifeboat at the touch of a button – reducing manual handling. Watertight, it can be submerged in depths of up to 9m and has a unique turntable cradle to rotate the lifeboat 180 degrees, so it’s ready to launch again within 10 minutes.

Barmouth Shannon class lifeboat being launched by SLARS
Image courtesy of Dave James

“The RNLI have progressed not only the development of lifeboats over the years but also the launch and recovery systems associated with the new boats,” says RNLI machinery trainer Mark Perry.

“Volunteers training on the new equipment will spend in the region of 40 hours conducting basic training and learning the full extent of all its capabilities – it’s certainly come a long way since the first tractor was introduced 100 years ago.”

A tractor on trial at Hunstanton in 1920
Image courtesy of British Illustrations

Other images courtesy of RNLI.

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