When a ship is observed from certain English light-houses (Bishop Rock, Caldy, Casquets, Chapman, Coquet, Eddystone, Flatholme, Godrevy, Hanois, Holyhead, Longships, Needles, Outer Farn, Round Island, Skerries, Smalls, South Bishop, South Stack, and St. Tudnall) making signals of distress or to require assistance, the lifeboat or other aid is summoned by the use of the following signals – by day, an explosive rocket fired every 10 minutes ; by night, an explosive rocket followed after 10 seconds by a rocket giving a white light. The answering signal is a red flag by day and two red star rockets by night.
Only the following Scottish lighthouses signal for aid and the day and night signals are the same, viz., two explosive rockets in quick succession every 5 minutes until the answering signal of a red flag by day or two red star rockets by night is given, (Barns Nest, Bass Rock, Buchan Ness, Cantick Head, Covesea Skerries, Davarr, Douglas Head, Fidra, Halburn, Hoy, Killantringan, Kinnaird Head, Lang Ness, Little Ross, May, Noss Head, Pentland, Pladda, St. Abbs, Sanda, Scurdy Ness, Stornoway, Stroma, and Turnberry).
From English and Scottish light-vessels the day signal D B is hoisted and two guns are fired with an interval between them of 5 minutes, and repeated every 15 minutes, the night signal being two guns fired as above, each followed by a rocket. The signals of both the Irish lighthouses and light-vessels are the same, viz., by day, two cones with their pointed ends down, placed vertically, and by night two guns or rockets fired in quick succession every 15 minutes, accompanied by a strong light, the latter alone being shown where there is no gun rocket apparatus.
A few of the English pile-lighthouses and light-vessels have special distress signals which are repeated until an answering signal that the lifeboat has reached the vessel in distress is given. The Gunfleet and Maplin Lighthouses, besides using explosion rockets, report by telephone.
When proposals were made some fifty years ago to extend telegraphic wires to some of the outlying lighthouses so that passing vessels might be reported to their owners, they were met by the objection that the light-keeper’s first duty was to secure the efficient and regular exhibition of the light under his charge, and that this legitimate duty might not be interfered with. It was also suggested that lighthouses might be made available as life-boat stations, but the same difficulty applies with even greater force to such a proposition, because if the light-keepers were, in case of shipwreck, to render any personal assistance at all, it would necessarily take them away from the lighthouse in states of weather when it would be of the utmost importance that the lightroom duties should be performed, if possible, with more than ordinary care, for the inside of the lantern windows would have to be cleared several times in the course of the night of the condensed water caused by extreme cold and the outside possibly of drifted snow. For these and other obvious reasons it is difficult to see how our lighthouses could in any way be made available for lifeboat stations
As the work of the lifeboat appeals to the majority of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, whether they live inland or on the coast, a few pages devoted to the history of our great life-saving service will probably not be considered out of place in this volume.
England has always held so proud a position in the maritime world and can claim the credit of so many valuable nautical inventions that it will surprise many to learn that the elaborate contrivances now in use for saving life from shipwreck are of comparatively recent date. Even towards the close of the eighteenth century the majority of the dwellers on our coasts considered that their first duty in the case of a wreck was to secure for their own benefit the property which Providence had thus cast on their shores.
The following is typical of the spirit too often displayed in older days on the occasion of a ship-wreck on our coasts. On the morning after the great storm of November 27, 1703, more than two hundred men were seen on the treacherous footing of the Goodwin Sands, making desperate signals for aid, well knowing that in a very short time when the tide rose they would inevitably perish. But the boatmen were too busily engaged in picking up portable property to think of saving life. The Mayor of Deal, a man of more humane disposition, begged the Customs officers to send their boat to save some at least of the poor men, but his appeal was in vain, the officer in charge alleging that their boats were not provided for this service. The Mayor, however, was not easily daunted, and having persuaded some of his fellow townsmen to assist him, the Customs boat was seized by force, and by its means many of the poor men were rescued from the sands.
The lifeboat as we know it at the present day is of comparatively recent invention. The Chinese, it is true, claim to have been the first to make use of this type of boat, and as early as 1765 a Frenchman named Bernières invented a boat which would not sink when filled with water, but there can be no doubt that the first lifeboat worthy of the name was the invention of the Englishman, Lionel Lukin, a coachbuilder by trade and a member of the Worshipful Company of Coachbuilders.
In November, 1785, Lukin took out a patent for what he described in a letter to the Prince of Wales as an “unimmergible” boat, but which was nothing more than a Norway yawl fitted with various contrivances for ensuring buoyancy and stability. His specification states that on “the outside of the boat are projecting gunnels, sloping from the top of the common gunnel, in a faint curve towards the water, so as not to interrupt the oars in rowing and, from the extreme projection (which may be greater or less according to the size and use the boat is intended for) returning to the side in a faint curve, at a proper distance above the water-line. These projecting gunnels may be made solid, of any light materials that will repel the water, or hollow and watertight, or of cork, and covered with thin wood, canvas, leather, tin or any other light metal, or composition. These projections are very small at the stem and stern, and increase gradually to the dimensions required. In the inside at the stem and stern and at the sides (where the projecting gunnels are not necessary), and under the seats and thwarts are enclosures or bulkheads made watertight or filled with cork or other light material ; the spaces between the timbers may be filled up in like manner. Under the bottom, along the centre of the keel, is fixed a false one of cast iron or other metal which will serve as ballast with more power than a much greater weight in the usual situation, and is not liable to shift by any sudden motion of the boat.”
Although for some unexplained reason this “unimmergible” boat was not brought into use during the inventor’s lifetime, the inventor, nevertheless, became associated shortly before his death with the earliest known attempt to establish a life-saving service. Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, who occupied the See of Durham from 1674 to 1722, left Bamborough Castle and many adjoining manors to trustees for various charitable purposes, including the establishment of a lifeboat, life-saving apparatus, and a refuge for shipwrecked sailors at the Castle.
The management of these undertakings was placed in the hands of the Rev. Archdeacon Sharp, who took considerable interest in the problem of saving life at sea. Lukin was employed by Dr. Sharp to construct for use at Bamborough an “unimmergible” boat, which was, in fact, a coble embodying the principles of the inventor’s first ideas. A nine-pounder gun was placed at the bottom of the great tower of the Castle for the purpose of signalling to ships during fogs and for warning the coast-guards in case of wreck. On stormy nights from sunset to sunrise a horseman patrolled the coast and when a shipwreck occurred he hastened to give notice to the Castle. By means of these various devices over three hundred lives and much valuable property were saved. The Castle, which was to sailors on that dangerous Northumbrian coast what the convent of St. Bernard is to travellers on the Alps, has since been sold by the Charity Commissioners to Lord Armstrong.
Notwithstanding this proof of what could be accomplished with boats that would withstand sinking better than any other craft yet devised, the public took little interest in the matter until the year 1789, when the Adventure, of Newcastle, was wrecked off South Shields and all hands were drowned within 300 yards of the shore in full view of large crowds who were practically powerless to render any help, for although the fishermen made several attempts to put out their boats each one was swamped as soon as it was launched This distressing incident led “The Gentlemen of the Lawe House,” whose club was located in an old barracks built on an eminence called the Lawe, to insert an advertisement in the Newcastle Courant offering a prize of two guineas for a design of a boat capable of maintaining its buoyancy even when manned and full of water. They also suggested to the Trinity House of Newcastle that a lifeboat should be permanently stationed at the mouth of the river and that beacons should be erected for the guidance of mariners.
Of the many plans and models submitted to “The Gentlemen of the Lawe House,” two only were selected – those of William Wouldhave, a house-painter, and Henry Greathead, a boat-builder of South Shields. They rejected Greathead’s model, which was like a raft, because it was thought the shape was unsuitable, while Wouldhave’s model was considered to be worth only one-half the premium offered.
Two of the members of the Committee then modelled in clay a boat combining the good points of the designs of Wouldhave and Greathead and employed the latter to construct a boat like it. Nearly 7 cwt. of cork were used to render the boat buoyant, but when launched in 1790 it was found that although supposed to embody the best points of each of the two models, it lacked the most important, that of self-righting power. The Original, for so she was named, was 30 feet by 10 feet by 3 feet, and cost £76 9s. 8d. to build. She was the first boat to be called a lifeboat and shortly after being put on the station effected the rescue of the entire crew of a large vessel which had gone ashore on the Herd Sands. By the year 1804 this boat had saved nearly three hundred lives and she continued the work of rescuing life and property for a period of twenty-five years, when she was lost on the “Black Middens”.
No other lifeboat was built until 1798 when the then Duke of Northumberland ordered two similar boats of Greathead; one of these he presented to North Shields with an endowment for her mainten-ance and the other to the town of Oporto.
During the next five years Greathead had built thirty-nine boats, all being fitted for rowing only. One of them went to Bamborough to replace the coble fitted up by Lukin in 1786. In 1802 Parliament voted Greathead £1 200 and two years later the Society of Arts presented him with their gold medal and a purse of fifty guineas. Lloyds also sent him a purse of one hundred guineas and voted the sum of £2,000 to encourage the placing of lifeboats at suitable stations.
In 1807 we find Lukin constructing a sailing life-boat expressly designed to save life from shipwreck. She was 40 feet in length with a beam of 10 feet and cost £200. During her life of over forty years she was instrumental in saving three hundred lives.
Greathead’s boat was almost the only kind in use at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, when no less than two hundred and eighty models were submitted in competition for a prize of one hundred guineas offered by the Duke of Northumberland.. The prize was awarded to Mr. Beeching, of Great Yarmouth, as the constructor of a lifeboat bracing the largest number of good qualities.
A boat built on the lines of the successful model was tried at Ramsgate in 1851 and proved a complete success, the cork fender running round the outside just below the gunwale combined with the air-cases fitted to the interior below the thwarts rendering her so buoyant, that, when filled with water, she was able to clear herself in less than a quarter of a minute, and, when thrown on her beam, refused to capsize. This was the first genuine self-righting boat ever built.
A Mr. Peake, of Woolwich Dockyard, by combiniing the best ideas of the competitive boats with some suggested by his own experience, designed a boat which, gradually improved from time to time, became the recognized English model and was adopted by the National Lifeboat Institution as the standard of the boats which they should station on the coasts.
Later on Mr. Beeching constructed a boat which he considered an improvement on his former model although she did not right herself. Notwithstanding this style of boat met with various disasters owing in great part to the lack of self-righting power, many boatmen preferred them to those of the earlier type. The controversy which then began between the supporters of the non-self-righting and those of the self-righting boats has only recently been ended by the adoption by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution of a standard self-righting boat. The lifeboat crews are always consulted as to the type of boat they would like and the Institution does not give any crew a boat unless they express themselves satisfied with her.
Many weird craft have been invented during the past hundred years but very few of them have come through their trials successfully, for although the models acted admirably on the smooth water of a bath or pond, their behaviour was generally quite different when the time came for them to fight against the dangerous complications of tide, wind, and current. One of the quaintest of these was the Infallible, which had no top or bottom, so that it was always right way up. Another curious boat was covered with gutta percha and had no less than 3,600 holes for letting out the water if shipped. In striking contrast to this was a Whitby lifeboat which could empty herself of water in four seconds by two holes in her bottom.
The buoyancy of the present day lifeboat is secured chiefly by means of air-cases fixed round the inside just below the gunwale and by two large air-chambers, one on the bow and the other in the stern. There is also an air-tight space between the floor and the bottom, partly filled with cork, an arrangement which not only gives additional buoyancy but would serve to keep the boat afloat even if she were stove in and filled with water. The cork wale which runs along the outside of the boat is now provided solely as a fender. Apart from its buoyancy, the most striking feature of a life-boat is its self-acting apparatus for getting rid of superfluous water. No matter how much water may be shipped the relieving tubes, which are fitted along the bottom, allow the whole of it to escape, while the valve, which consists of a circular plate swinging on an axis, prevents the return of any into the boat. So rapid is the process of emptying that a boat, filled to the top of the gunwale, frees herself in the space of half a minute.
Formerly the ballast used was water, admitted automatically as the boat was being launched, but in the latest Watson boats this form of ballast is seldom employed.
The average age of a lifeboat is from fifteen to twenty years, but the Institution withdraws a boat as soon as there is the slightest doubt of its absolute safety.
The present-day lifeboat weighs from 2 to 16 tons, and costs from £800 for a small self-righter to £1,700 for a large Watson, exclusive of the gear. Each member of the crew is provided with a life-belt, guernsey, oil-skins, and sou’ wester. The life-belts were formerly made of cork but this has given place to “kapok” which is made from a plant which grows in the Malay Peninsula ; it is not only more buoyant than cork but it retains its buoyancy longer and is warmer for the wearer.
A stout anchor and chain are carried by every lifeboat and many of the larger boats are fitted with a steering wheel. To prevent a boat turning broad-side to the sea a drogue, or large canvas bag, is towed astern with the mouth foremost. Each boat carries also a compass, grappling irons, lifebuoys made of kapok, an axe, two hatchets, signal lights, a lamp, and a can containing spirits, chocolate and biscuits.
There are various ways of launching a lifeboat. Sometimes they are pushed or hauled over greased skids ; sometimes where a long stretch of sand intervenes or when the boat has to be taken a long distance by road, carriages are used, and these have to be taken into the sea to a depth sufficient to enable the boat to float„off ; in some places haul-ofl warps are used and at others a permanent timber or stone slipway is constructed.
The possibilities of adapting steam to the propulsion of lifeboats were under consideration as long ago as the year 1850. In the Great Exhibition of 1851, a steam model designed by a Northumber land engineer was shown but it was not until 1890 that the first steam lifeboat came into existence. This little steel-built vessel was so stable that she could heel over to an angle to 110° and yet not capsize. She was named “The Duke of Northumberland” and is still doing duty at Holyhead. She is propelled by a water turbine. The Queen, built in 1827, is stationed at New Brighton; the James Stephens, No. 3, built in 1898, is stationed at Milford Haven; and the City of Glasgow, built in 1901, at Harwich. The last two are propelled by screws which are fixed in a cavity to prevent the risk of fouling.
Four sailing lifeboats have recently been fitted with petrol motors and screws The principal requirements of new motor boats are that the engines shall be capable of running for twelve hours continuously without any attention and be fitted with a governor (independent of hand control) to control the engine and prevent racing. In a self-righting boat there must be an automatic switch to stop the engine when she is tilted at an angle of from sixty to seventy degrees . The engine must not be too small or delicate and must be fixed in a water-tight casing.
The lifeboats carried on ships are of many types and patterns but those on the better-class liners are usually made of steel. Inventors are now engaged in devising a satisfactory method of launching ships boats, for at present the system of getting them into the water from the lofty decks of our modern leviathans (the boat deck of the Titanic was 70 feet above the sea) is very much the same as it was in the days of Queen Elizabeth. Had the weather been rough at the time of the Titanic disaster it would have been almost impossible to launch the boats from davits for they would in all probability have been dashed to pieces against the sides of the vessel as they were being lowered ; and, moreover, had the sea been very high, the Carpathia would not have been able to pick the boats up.
Sir Bryan Leighton, who is a frequent traveller on the high seas, claims to have invented a method by which boats may be launched from any height into any sea and at such a distance from the ship as to eliminate the danger of their being crushed against the side of the vessel in the case of a heavy sea. The principle is similar to that of the water-chute, as seen at Earl’s Court. On each side of the liner would be one or more of these fixtures and in time of need they would be lifted from their “stowaway” position on the side of the ship by a heavy crane and launched into the sea. The end of the chute, fastened to the boat deck of the ship, works on a swivel, thus allowing of free action with the movement of the ship on the waves ; the other end terminates in a pontoon floating on the water. The boats would be brought to the top of the chute on rollers and then lowered by a wire cable. The lower end of the chute has a slight upward curve and just before reaching this the boat would be stopped, then at a favourable moment the officer in charge would release the cable and the boat would then roll down the remaining distance into the sea. It is obvious that there would be some difficulty in fitting such a great structure to the side of a ship, for as the chute would normally project at an angle of 30° from the boat deck into the water, its length would be roughly twice as long as the height of the ship out of the water ; thus had such a structure been fitted to the Titanic its length must have been 140 feet. Even if the inventor has not succeeded in solving the whole problem it is possible that he has started the shipping companies on the right track.
Captain J. W. Pitt, of Bodmin, has invented a very practicable device for lowering boats at sea without the use of davits, thus obviating any chance of the boats being stove in against the side of the vessel when it is rolling or pitching. It consists of a lowering way parallel to the side of the vessel, the bed of the way being of flanged rollers. On an extension of the bridge deck four or five double-keeled boats can be housed on a bed of rollers, along which they can be readily passed, one at a time, into a frame which can be immediately swung round and the boat passed on to the lowering way and let down by a rope, the boat being held on the way by the pressure of the keel against the flanged rollers.
The lifeboat so used is constructed with a flat bottom, and the sides are built all round from bow to stern at right angles to the bottom for the pur- pose of giving greater buoyancy, a greater number of seats for passengers, a greater space for air tanks, water and stores, the result being that the space required on a ship’s deck for a boat of this description to carry a hundred people is, it is claimed, 30 per cent. less than that occupied by the boat at present in use. The boat has many ingenious features, including a mast for the purpose of signalling with a lantern. It is claimed that with one single lowering way 1,500 people can be got afloat in thirty minutes.
At the present time the Royal National Lifeboat Institution maintains a fleet of 283 boats, and since its foundation has granted rewards for saving over fifty thousand lives. It awards medals, vellums, and grants of money for conspicuous bravery, and gives pecuniary compensation to the widows and other dependent relatives of lifeboat men who lose their lives on service. Pensions or retiring allowances are granted to coxwains, bowmen, and signalmen of long service and good character.
The toll of the sea as regards the number of lives lost by wreck, drowning, or other accident in British sea-going merchant ships registered in the United Kingdom is gradually falling. The total number of masters and seamen employed in sailing and steam vessels for the year 1911 was 247,046 and the number of lives lost was 997. In addition 24 passengers were lost by wreck only, making the total number of lives lost 1,021. In 1894, 1,874 masters and seamen and 1,197 passengers, making a grand total of 3,071, were lost. The proportion of mariners lost in 1894 was one in 116, in 1911 it had fallen to one in 248.
During the past sixty years there have been only forty cases in which the boats of the National Institution have been wrecked, while the lives lost have not exceeded seventy. The boats are stationed according to the number of wrecks and the exigencies of nature, but we are safe in asserting that the seafarer will be certain of receiving a ready and brave response whenever he stands in need of help, whether by day or by night, in fair weather or in foul.