Bob Weir finds out why the Defender makes the perfect RNLI launch vehicle
TheNorth Sea can be a dangerous place, and the rugged coastline around Dunbar is hometo one of the busiest lifeboat crews in the UK. It's no wonder their launch vehicle is a Defender.
The port of Dunbar in East Lothian has a long history dating back to mediaeval times. Its strategic position on the Scottish coast gave rise to a history full of incident and strife, but these days it is a dormitory town to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. It's also home to the second oldest RNLI station north of
Lifeboats have been launching from Dunbar for nearly 200 years, and during this time crew members have been honoured with 12 awards for gallantry. The first lifeboat was sent to the station in 1808. Despite many acts of heroism this station was eventually closed, before a new station was established by the RNLI in 1864. A new lifeboat house was built in 1901 at a cost of £633. Six years later a second station was opened at Skateraw just south of the town, and manned by Dunbar men. This station was eventually closed during the Second World War.
In 1958 the Dunbar station was presented with a 150th anniversary commemorative Vellum. By 1993 a low-water mooring berth had been provided at Torness harbour, south
of the town next to Torness Power Station. The lifeboat is kept there when crossing the harbour entrance at Dunbar is not possible.
In 2008 the lifeboat station celebrated its
200th anniversary. Over the years Dunbar RNLI has been involved in many of the
major incidents in Scottish waters, and as recently as February 2016 two lifeboats were involved in a joint operation to help a large trawler that had suffered engine failure and required assistance.
The Dunbar station is currently equipped with two lifeboats, which allows it to cover all contingencies. The John Neville Taylor is a 14-35 ‘Trent’ class, measuring 14 metres. This boat has been in service at Dunbar since 2008. The Trent was one of the first hard chine hull designs produced for the RNLI, and has a geometric hull and sheerline that sweeps down for ease of recovery. Powered by twin MAN diesel engines, the boat's propellers and rudders lie in partial tunnels set into the hull. With the help of the two bilge keels, they provide excellent protection from damage in shallow water.
The boat is equipped with comprehensive electronics that include VHF / MF radios with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) functionality, and a VHF direction finder and DGPS (Differential Global Positioning System) with electronic chart system and radar. The Trent class also carries a small inflatable boat, with a 5 hp outboard motor capable of 6 knots. This is used to access areas where the lifeboat cannot reach.
The second boat is the Jimmy Miff. This
is a smaller inflatable D class), and has been
in use since 2009. First introduced to the lifeboat fleet in 1963, the design of the D class has continued to evolve. The latest version (also known as the IB-1 type) was introduced in 2003.
Launched from a trolley or davit, the D class is ideal for rescues close to shore in fair or moderate conditions. The boat is powered by
a 50 hp outboard engine, and can be righted manually by the crew should the boat capsize.
Equipment carried features both fitted
and handheld VHF radio, night vision, and a first aid kit including oxygen.
Responsibility for launching the boats devolves to the Coastguard Service at Crail across the Firth of Forth in Fife. In addition, the station also nominates launch officers, who are capable of taking charge in the event of a local emergency. Crew numbers can vary at any given time, and the station’s current complement is around 30. The present skipper, or coxswain, is Gary Fairbairn, who has already received the RNLI’s Bronze Medal for Gallantry. The boats are kept busy for most of the year. This especially applies to the summer months, which have been dubbed by the crew as the silly season.
“Despite all the warnings, amateur sailors sometimes take on more than they can handle,” Gordon Ainslie, Dunbar’s station manager explained. “This can often lead to trouble. Even an experienced crew can get caught out, sometimes with dire results.”
Dunbar RNLI has been using Land Rovers for several years now, and HD57 HMG is the station’s second Defender. Unlike the first vehicle which was acquired secondhand, it was bought new by RNLI HQ in Poole.
The Defender is pretty much the standard article, but it does come with a few important extras. These include a Simrad RT64 radio, and spotlights on the front as well as roof lamps at the rear. The siren and hazard warning bar are controlled via an extra panel fitted to the dash. The winch is extremely useful as this allows the inshore boat to
be lowered and raised from the harbour slipway. Back in the old days, this laborious duty had to be done by hand. Now the grateful crew can rely on the pulling power of the Defender’s diesel.
Gordon said: “Having the Defender offers other benefits. Before we had the Land Rover, crew members had to make their own way
to the launch point. This meant driving at speed, sometimes in the dead of night. Not only was this potentially dangerous, there were other issues. Because they were all obliged to use their own vehicles, there were insurance implications.”
Not that owning the Defender has been all plain sailing!
“The Defender has had its ups and downs over the years,” Gordon recalls. “It had to have a new engine fitted as soon as it arrived in Dunbar, and the vehicle has also worked its way through two gearboxes. There was one incident I remember in particular when we were on our way to a service call, and she jammed in first gear. The two double seats in the back are a big improvement over the previous model’s bench seat, and overall the Land Rover is a fine 4x4. It has done pretty much what it is supposed to do. The crew members are very fond of it, and it has served well. The vehicle has still only covered 28,000 miles, and when it is eventually replaced will make a great secondhand buy.”
These days the volunteers all gather at the administration building down by the old harbour, before the Defender whisks them away to their next mission. The distinctive livery, flashing lights and loud siren all ensure that people have quickly learned to keep out of the vehicle’s way.
The Land Rover also has other uses. Because of the nature of the coastline around Dunbar, not all of the rescues occur at sea. River estuaries can be equally treacherous, and in the past the inflatable lifeboat has been called into action when cars have been swept away during a flood.
“Times like this are when the Defender’s mud-plugging capabilities come in handy,” said Gordon. “Having the Land Rover allows the boat to be carried across country to the right location.”
Despite the inherent risks involved with the job, the Dunbar Station takes pride in carrying out its duty with plenty of humour and cheerful optimism. Most of the volunteers are young, and there is plenty of scope for banter. Like all the RNLI’s crews they also approach their task with courage and bravery – a point worth remembering, next time you see a storm brewing on the horizon.
RNLI FACT FILE
The RNLI was originally founded in 1824 as the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck. The RNLI was granted its royal
charter in 1860, and the Queen is its current patron. The organisation is mostly funded by legacies and donations, and the majority of the lifeboat crew members are unpaid volunteers. Only one in ten has professional maritime experience. In addition, there are over 20,000 volunteer community fundraisers.
The RNLI currently runs 237 lifeboat stations, and has a fleet of over 340 lifeboats. The active boats range from 3.8 to 17 metres in length. In addition, there is a relief fleet, as well as four active and three relief hovercraft. The service helped over 28,000 people in 2014, and its aim is to halve fatalities around Britain’s coast by 2024.
There are two categories of lifeboat, all-weather and inshore. Both types of boat are expensive to build, and can rise upwards of a million pounds. It cost nearly 150 million to run the RNLI in 2014, and this makes it all the more remarkable that the organisation is available to flourish without receiving funding from central government.
The type of boats used at any particular station, will depend mainly on location. All-weather lifeboats (ALBs) are capable of high speed, are self-righting, and fitted with navigation, location and communication equipment. Inshore lifeboats (ILBs) usually operate closer to shore, in shallower waters. Hovercrafts are used in areas that are unsuitable for conventional boats, such as mud flats and river estuaries.
A typical ALB has a top speed of 25 knots. The smaller ILBs and hovercraft can manage speeds in excess of 30 knots. The lifeboats are built at the RNLI’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset. The All-weather lifeboat centre (ALC) opened in August 2015. The facility can handle every stage of the building process, and has brought production, maintenance and in-house refits under one roof for the first time. This ensures that the RNLI is fully equipped to provide the next generation of lifeboats.