How to name your lifeboat

What would you call your boat?

It’s a big decision. Should your name be lucky or funny? Straightforward or sentimental? Here at the RNLI, with a fleet of 349 lifeboats, that’s a lot of decision making. So we’re glad that the benefactors who fund our lifeboats take on the challenge of giving these craft names with the dignity they deserve. Or, failing that, a good old-fashioned pun.

Here, we take a look at the stories behind 10 colourful lifeboat names through the RNLI’s history. We start at the beginning, with Original. Or do we?

Original

The first lifeboats predate the RNLI (founded in 1824). And the most famous of these is Henry Greathead's Original. Though how original the Original really was is a subject of hot debate.

Greathead's Original went into service in 1790 and saved hundreds of lives. She was 10m long, 3m wide and rose sharply at bow and stern, where she held cases filled with cork. Powered by oars and a crew of 12, she saved hundreds of lives. But was she a true original?

Fishermen from Merseyside had been using an adapted rowing gig to save others for years. Though the adaptations were minimal.

A better claim for a lifeboat predating Original lies with London coachbuilder Lionel Lukin. In 1774, Lukin converted a Norway yawl by adding a cork belt and fitting watertight containers and cork blocks inside to increase buoyancy. He also added an iron keel to keep the boat, Experiment, upright. He patented this design for 'the unimmergible boat'.

But it was Greathead's Original, an entry into a public competition run by a private club called the Gentlemen of Lawe House, that went into mass production. Thirty-one lifeboats of this design were built, mainly commissioned by Lloyd's Register and the Duke of Northumberland.

Sunlight

Sunlight No. 1

On station at Llandudno, 1887

Sunlight No. 2

On station at Brighton, 1888

The houseproud buyers of Sunlight soap funded two new lifeboats in the 1880s, ‘possessing all the latest improvements’: self-righting, water-ballast tanks and self-ejecting water. Sunlight No. 1 was 37 feet long and 8 feet wide with 12 oars. Sunlight No. 2 was 34 feet long and 7 feet wide with 10 oars.

Accounts from the time attribute the donated £900 to ‘the Sunlight Competition, promoted by Messrs Lever Brothers of Warrington’.

Details on this specific competition aren’t given, but Sunlight had previously run promotions allowing customers to vote for their favourite causes – much like the green tokens you get handed at the checkout at some of the UK’s best-known supermarkets. However it happened in the 1880s, the volunteers at Llandudno and Brighton cleaned up due to this early corporate partnership.

First shout: Sunlight No. 1 in a tremendous sea

Account from The Life-boat Journal, 1889:

'The Sunlight No. 1 Life-boat, manned by its efficient crew, rendered its first service in saving life during the heavy gale which prevailed along the coast on the 7th October. Early that morning two fishing trawlers from Hoylake, the Perseverance, Edward Smith, master, and the Ellen and Ann, Joseph Beck, master, anchored in Llandudno Bay about three miles from the shore. At about 9-30 it was observed that the Perseverance had hoisted a distress signal.

'The Life-boat, fully manned, was quickly launched in front of the South Parade, the boat being in charge of Mr. Richard Jones, coxswain. The launch was well managed, and as the boat put off in the tremendous sea which was running, hundreds of persons who had gathered on the parade gave a hearty cheer.

'In order to procure a better headway, and get a little shelter from the gale, the boat was steered out near the pier. The public also made for the pierhead, where a good view of the proceedings was obtainable.

'The Life-boat was soon near the Perseverance, but it was some time before the men were got off; eventually four men were landed from the vessel at the pierhead.

'The Life-boat then put out again to the Ellen and Ann, which had also hoisted a signal of distress, and landed four more hands on the beach, amid the cheers of the spectators. The behaviour of the new Life-boat exceeded all expectations, and the crew are greatly pleased with the way in which she passed through this very severe test, as she had to encounter a very heavy breaking sea.'

White Star and Cunard

White Star

On station at Fishguard, 1930

Cunard

On station at St Mary’s, 1930

Support from the business community continued into the early part of the 20th century – and what better corporate supporters than those that use the sea themselves?

At the RNLI Annual Meeting in 1928, the Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VIII) made an ambitious ask: ‘May I make a suggestion to our great shipping lines? I know their wonderful seamen’s charities, but may I suggest that one or two of them might give a lifeboat?

‘What prouder thing could a great shipping line have than its name on one of our lifeboats? It is true that the lifeboat will not be seen by many people; it will not have much publicity. But think what it can do!’

White Star had good cause to support the lifeboats. On 17 March 1907 the White Star liner SS Suevic ran aground on the Maenheere Reef off the coast of Cornwall. In a violent gale, lifeboats from Cadgwith, Coverack, The Lizard and Porthleven rowed back and forth for 16 hours to rescue passengers and crew. Their courage and perseverance saved 465 lives that day – an RNLI record that still stands.

The names of the White Star and Cunard lifeboats evoke the romance of the Hollywood era: a time when the hottest ticket in town was a meal at the captain’s table.

And if these new Watson class motor lifeboats were to align themselves with such luxury liners, it was only right that they be well equipped – with twin engines and a cabin that could take 20 survivors. Though passenger facilities were not quite up to the art-deco standards of the lifeboats’ big sisters – the legendary cruise liners of the 1930s: Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Britannic among them.

Not to be outdone, in 1929, Peninsular and Oriental (nowadays better known as P&O) presented a new motor lifeboat, named Princess Mary, to the crew at St Mary’s. And the Union Castle Mail Steamship Company helped fund a new lifeboat, Lady Kylsant, for Weymouth.

The Cuttle

On station in Filey, 1940

It’s best known for its camouflage skills, its large eyes, and being rather tasty. Of all the noble and fearsome creatures of the deep, why on earth or water would you name a lifeboat after a cuttlefish?

Well, you wouldn’t. The story behind the name of Filey’s Liverpool class lifeboat is a little more prosaic, though no less impressive. The lifeboat was paid for by the legacy of a Miss FL Cuttle from Rotherham. It cost £4,444.

The Liverpool class lifeboat did not self-right. Crews at many stations said they preferred it that way, as it seemed to them more stable than the self-righting lifeboats of the time. The Cuttle had a single engine and was capable of 7½ knots.

Through the years of the Liverpool fleet, three of the class capsized with loss of life: at Cullercoats (1939), Arbroath (1953), and Seaham Harbour (1962). The Cuttle and her crew were not so unlucky. Her distinguished career included 32 wartime launches, saving 14 lives.

Money left in people’s Wills funded hundreds of lifeboats throughout the 20th century. Today, around two thirds of the RNLI’s income comes from gifts in Wills.

Most of the lifeboats funded in this way are named after the legator or someone close to them – a spouse, perhaps, or a parent. Miss FL Cuttle may well have smiled as she instructed her solicitor that the lifeboat should be named The Cuttle, rather than FL Cuttle or a traditional variant. This lifeboat had a name that belonged at sea. She served at Filey for 13 years and spent a further 11 years at Skegness.

Are you interested in leaving a gift in your Will? Find out how here.

Wartime heroes: The Cuttle evades mine, saves 12

Account from The Life-boat Journal, 1943:

November 18th. Filey. Yorkshire.

'Just after noon the coastguard reported a vessel not under control one and a half miles east of Filey Brig. A fresh northerly wind was blowing, with a rather rough sea. Both coxswains, with other life-boatmen, were out fishing, but ex-Coxswain R. C. Jenkinson took charge, and at 12.38 in the afternoon the motor life-boat The Cuttle was launched.

'Twenty minutes later she reached tank landing craft 898, with a crew of twelve on board, riding to an anchor out astern. A mine unseen by the men on the landing craft was floating only two yards from her. The life-boat men shouted instructions, and the men of the landing craft heaved on her cable and cleared the mine. The landing craft was having difficulty with her engines, but after a life-boatman had been put on board to act as pilot she got under way.

'The life-boat passed a towing rope from her to the minesweeper Ann Vera, but the rope broke. The minesweeper then fired a line to her by rocket, but this also broke.

'As the landing craft was now drifting towards rocks off Gristhorpe and in great danger, and as the minesweeper could not follow her the lifeboat went in again and again. She succeeded in passing a rope aboard her, hung on, headed eastwards, pulled her clear of the rocks and towed her right into Scarborough.

'The officer-in-charge congratulated the lifeboat crew. He said the landing craft would have been wrecked but for their help. The life-boat returned to her station at 6.15 that evening. Property salvage case.'

The Scout

On station at Hartlepool, 1977

In 1974, we celebrated the RNLI’s 150th birthday. And the Scout Association joined the party with a fundraising challenge: Operation Lifeboat. Scout troops around the UK, including Cub Scouts and Venture Scouts, raised over £100,000 in one weekend to fund a Waveney class lifeboat, later named The Scout by HM The Queen.

The Scout marks the point in our list where our vintage beauties begin to look like the lifeboats of today. We see the orange wheelhouse and an updated hull shape brought in from the US Coastguard, which helped make the Waveney the first RNLI lifeboat capable of more than 10 knots.

An American theme ran through early names for Waveney class lifeboats. The prototype, built in the US, was nicknamed The Yank by lifeboat crews, while the first station boat, sent to Dun Laoghaire, was the grandly named John F Kennedy.

Back in Britain, The Scout joined a B class lifeboat already stationed at Hartlepool and funded by the Girl Guides’ Association, so the crew could be prepared for all eventualities at sea.

And prepared they were: When The Scout capsized twice on service in the Tees Bay, not a single life was lost.

After 20 years’ service in Hartlepool, The Scout was sold to ADES, a search-and-rescue organisation in Uruguay.

Blue Peter I-VII

On station in Littlehampton, Beaumaris, North Berwick, St Agnes, Portaferry, Cleethorpes and Fishguard, 1967-present

Viewers of Blue Peter, the long-running BBC children’s TV show, have funded 28 lifeboats in four appeals since the 1960s. All but one have been inshore D and B class lifeboats, brought into the fleet in the 1960s and 1970s to deal with the growing number of incidents close to shore – incidents much more likely to involve children.

The first appeal, in 1966, asked children to collect paperback books. Stamps, buttons and postcards were collected in 1984. And in 1993, the show’s producers took advantage of a shared nautical theme and asked for ‘treasure’ – receiving everything from old forks to silver candelabras.

The treasure appeal was successful enough to replace all six inshore lifeboats, and half-fund the show’s first all-weather lifeboat: Blue Peter VI, a Trent class lifeboat for Fishguard.

The Blue Peter appeals showed that you don’t have to be a rich old man to get the chance to name a lifeboat. Ten-year-old Paula Trainor named the first Blue Peter V in Portaferry in 1986 – launching her with a nutritious bottle of milk.

Unusually, the same name has been used for different, successive lifeboats. For example, the D class Blue Peter I went on service at Littlehampton in 1967. Following another fundraising appeal, she was replaced with a B class lifeboat in 1972, also to be called Blue Peter I. The original Blue Peter I was sold out of service.

Since then, four more B class lifeboats, each one a technological improvement on her predecessor, have been stationed at Littlehampton, all called, in their turn, Blue Peter I.

Lifeboats with Blue Peter nameplates are on service today. Though we will never forget the ones we made earlier.

Newsbuoy

Joined relief fleet, 1984

See what they did there? We would expect nothing but a fine seafaring pun from the Local Newspaper Week Lifeboat Appeal. Newspaper staff, newsagents, advertisers and paperboys and girls raised the money in lots of ways: from parachute jumps to miles of pennies, readers’ contributions to shop collections, balloon races to beach parties.

The Arun class lifeboat could do 18½ knots – that’s around the speed of some of the older lifeboats still in service today. Compared with the Waveney, the Arun also offered more space and better comfort for crews and survivors.

Only one Arun was ever lost at sea – the Richard Evans was swept overboard from the deck of a container ship on its way to Iceland, having been sold after 19 years’ service at Portrush.

Back to the headline: As for Newsbuoy, she saw service at various stations as part of the relief fleet. Her more notable services happened off Scotland’s northern isles. At Lerwick (Shetland) in 1989, Coxswain Hewitt Clark brought Newsbuoy alongside a grounded fish factory ship more than 30 times in gales and darkness. And in 1992 she was stationed at Stromness (Orkney) and soon on hand when a replica longboat lost steering 40 miles north of Cape Wrath.

In 2004, Newsbuoy went further north again, sold as a lifeboat to the Faroe Islands. We bet she could file a few stories from up there.

Oxford Town and Gown

On station at Whitstable, 2000

Say ‘Oxford’ to anyone from outside the general local area, and we think of one thing: posh university. But there's more to this city than dreaming spires. According to the programme from her naming ceremony, the name of this B class lifeboat 'represents the close link between the citizens of Oxford (Town) and the students of the two universities (Gown) that have made the city what it is today'.

The Oxford Lifeboat Appeal raised £76,000 for this, a B class Atlantic 75 lifeboat. The programme goes on: 'The appeal has also highlighted the depth of feeling for the RNLI in those parts of the country that do not have the benefit of coastline.'

The B class lifeboat was a pioneering rigid inflatable boat (RIB), developed in the 1970s by the RNLI to save lives quickly close to shore in challenging conditions (up to force 7).

The Atlantic 75 was the second iteration of the B class lifeboat. Its main improvement over its predecessor, the Atlantic 21, was a ballast tank at the front of the boat, allowing it to launch into bigger surf.

There are still some Atlantic 75s in service, including Oxford Town and Gown, but most have now been replaced with Atlantic 85s, a metre longer and fitted with radar and VHF direction finding equipment.

Hurley Flyer

On station at Morecambe, 2002

Our hovercraft don’t have coxswains or helms. They have pilots. Hence the ‘Flyer’ part of the name of the second rescue hovercraft to go on RNLI duty.

The ‘Hurley’ comes from the donor, Kay Hurley MBE, who has since also funded the Hurley Spirit and the E class lifeboat Hurley Burly.

Kay gave this reason for such staunch support: ‘I first became aware of the RNLI during my childhood. I lived in Harrogate, 60 miles from the sea, but I knew if ever there was a ship in trouble the lifeboats would appear to rescue the boat and then disappear again. It was like something from a fairytale, like magic!

‘I have retained that feeling ever since and still believe the RNLI is a charity that inspires people. Whenever people are in trouble on the sea, they expect the lifeboats to be there, like a mother answering a call from her child. Always there for us.’

Hovercraft joined the RNLI fleet in 2002 to rescue people lifeboats couldn’t reach – people stuck in mud or river estuary shallows.

This one must be a good name; the Marston’s pub in the centre of Morecambe is also named The Hurley Flyer, after our hovercraft and therefore, in a way, after Kay.

Storm Rider

Joined relief fleet, 2014

The Storm Rider is the fourth Shannon – funded by a public appeal and named by RNLI supporters too.

A competition in Storm Force, the RNLI children’s club magazine, asked young supporters for suggestions as to what to call the lifeboat. We shortlisted five of the best and put them to an RNLI supporter vote. Storm Rider was the idea of 12-year-old Rachel Fairhurst from Gateshead. When her name won, she was invited to officially name the lifeboat at a special ceremony.

When asked how she came up with Storm Rider, Rachel says: ‘I can always imagine the lifeboat and all those brave souls in it, riding the storm.’

The other shortlisted entries were Corncrake, Local Hero, Stormy’s Pride and Young Fundraisers.

The Shannon class lifeboat is propelled by waterjets rather than traditional rotary propellers, making it more manoeuvrable and allowing it to operate in shallower waters and to be intentionally beached.

The SIMS system is intalled on Shannon class lifeboats, meaning the crews don't have to leave the safety of their seats to carry out basic jobs around the lifeboat.

With a top speed of 25 knots, the Shannon is also 8 knots faster than the lifeboat she's replacing around our coasts: the Mersey.

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