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RNLI looks back at the first tractors used to launch lifeboats

RNLI lifeboats often take centre stage in rescues, however, many can’t launch without a tractor and the dedicated shore crew. Operators often launch the lifeboat in raging seas and darkness, and a safe, quick launch can make the difference between life and death.

The lifeboat and crew might get the public’s attention, but 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 1920’s, 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.

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.

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.

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, is the first female tractor driver at Seahouses, and follows in the footsteps generations 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,’ she said: ‘So without the tractor, the boat wouldn’t be able to launch at all. We’re all working together as one big team.’

Susan 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.

RNLI Machinery Trainer Mark Perry said: ‘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.

‘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.’

To support RNLI lifesavers, please visit RNLI.org/GoDonate

Photo credit: RNLI/Dave James and David E Jenkins

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