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Lifeboat Services Around the World

Those who explain the RNLI and its role to the uninitiated are frequently asked: 'how do other countries do it?' Can there be anywhere else in the world where the considerable cost of running a lifeboat service is met entirely through voluntary support? There is, but there is nothing uniform in the systems employed by our colleagues overseas. Some are entirely voluntary, some are part state-backed, part voluntary; while others form part of a larger government organisation. The countries represented at the 1991 International Lifeboat Conference were asked for information on their services, and this report is based on their answers.Europe Holland has the oldest lifeboat service after the RNLI, both North and South Holland Lifeboat societies being founded in 1824, a few months after the RNLI, with similar voluntary crewing and funding systems. In 1991 the two organisations merged, providing a fleet of 48 boats including revolutionary water jet powered 14m rigid inflatables capable of 36 knots.

Germany also runs a fully voluntary lifeboat service (founded in 1865) and it too has undergone a recent merger, taking responsibility for all the old East German lifeboat stations. The fleet consists of 27 lifeboats more than 10m long and 21 under 10m.

Sweden's totally voluntary 95-year-old service maintains 54 lifeboats to cope with its boating-mad population and Switzerland runs 75 rescue craft. Yes, Switzerland; sea they may not have, but Lac Leman is well catered for.

France has a very long coastline and the Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer which came together as a single organisation in 1968 looks after 155 permanent station boats and 470 inflatables. Although relying on volunteer crews, the funding is only half voluntary, with the remainder coming from national and local government.

Norway, which sends some of its lifeboats to sea for extended periods to accompany the fishing fleets, employs full-time crews but the 46 lifeboat stations are funded partly from the state, partly voluntarily and partly by commerce.

Finland, with 92 lifeboats, Iceland with a fleet of over 100 inflatables and rigid inflatables (and an ex-RNLI 70ft Clyde class) all run lifeboat services which rely both on volunteers and the state.

x i Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Poland are examples of European countries whose lifeboats are provided by government maritime organisations which concern themselves with more than just lifesaving. Denmark's lifeboats, for instance, are part of the Royal Danish department of Navigation and Hydrography and are designed to double up as pilot boats. Portugal, in fact, also runs a voluntary lifesaving society which was founded in 1980.

This European list is not exhaustive, the old USSR and eastern Europe not featuring very prominently, for instance, because we have little or no information about what will emerge in the way of lifeboat cover in these countries. Estonia, however, has already been in touch with the International Lifeboat Federation and has a lifesaving organisation which includes five rescue cruisers. They are keen to add to the fleet, but funding is their inevitable problem.

North America Most people have heard of the US Coast Guard, a more than 200-year-old government organisation which fulfils many roles which range from search and rescue to coastal patrol, law enforcement and environmental protection in US waters.

It operates many multi-purpose craft but the fleet, which comprises more than 1,400 vessels, includes the 44ft surf boat which is dedicated to search and rescue. This design was adapted by the RNLI in the '60s to become the Waveney class, the first of the Institution's fast afloat lifeboat. A new 47ft design, to replace the 44-footer, will soon be in production in the US, a design which evolved after lengthy consultation with European lifeboat organisations.

Although crews of the US Coast Guard are full time, there is a US Coast Guard Auxiliary service manned by volunteers who use their own boats and carrying out approximately 25% of the 37,000 search and rescue cases each year.

The Canadian Coast Guard is also a multi-purpose service and mirrors its US counterpart in many ways - including running an Auxiliary wing with volunteer lifesavers. The unique demands of a country which has to cover vast expanses of frozen waste means that their fleet includes icebreakers, hovercraft, 35 helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft. They also operate a steel-hulled version of the RNLI's Arun class.The Bahamas, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands and the Dutch Antilles all run sea lifesaving services; Bermuda's state-run SAR committee has one 52ft pilot/rescue craft and two rigid inflatables while the Virgin Islands has one rigid inflatable whose crew have received training from the RNLI.

South America.

Members of the International Lifeboat Federation in South America include Argentina with a government-financed fleet of 70m fishing surveillance cutters and smaller coastal patrol vessels, Chile with a voluntary service operating two ex-RNLI lifeboats (a Barnett and a 1928-built motor lifeboat), Guatemala, with a government-run organisation which bought an RNLI Watson in 1959, and Uruguay which has two ex-RNLI lifeboats on the River Plate (a 1956 Watson and a 1928 motor lifeboat, once at Southend-on-Sea).


The only ILF members in Africa are Morocco and South Africa. The letter's National Sea Rescue Institute was founded in 1967 along much the same voluntary lines as the RNLI although it does receive some 8% of its income from central government. There are 24 lifeboat stations around the South African coast.

Australia and New Zealand.

Most of Australia's very long coastline is sparsely populated and the tendency has been for sea rescue to be co-ordinated on a regional rather than a national basis. Six separate organisations currently represent Australia in the ILF. They include volunteer coastal patrol and coast guard organisations which operate some dedicated rescue craft and some privately owned vessels which can be called upon for search and rescue. The Surf Life Saving Association of Australia is also a member of the Federation.

The mainly government-financed New Zealand Coastguard Federation has responsibility for search and rescue around its country's coast but there are also three local voluntary rescue oganisations based at Wellington, Sumner (Christchurch-where it operates an ex-RNLI boat) and Manukau.


China, which is reputed to have run the world's first lifeboat service at the mouth of the Yangtse in the mid-18th century, now has the Maritime Rescue and Salvage Bureau which was founded in 1978. It is a partially government and partially commercial concern, split into three areas (north, east and south China Sea) where full-time crews man 17 rescue and salvage stations operating a total of 46 craft. Sea rescue in Hong Kong is the responsibility of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Japan founded its wholly-voluntary lifeboat service in 1888, after a visit to Europe by a former Prime Minister, Count Kuroda. It operates 87 lifeboats and has in support the government-financed Maritime Safety Agency - which has at its disposal some 440 multi-purpose vessels of all different sizes together with 24 fixed-wing aircraft and 42 helicopters.

The only other Asian representative in the ILF is India whose government Department of Lighthouses and Lightships takes charge of rescue at sea.

To round-off this whistle-stop tour of the world it is worth pointing out how fortunate the RNLI is to be at the centre of world lifeboating affairs. The Institution provides the permanent secretariat of the ILF and represents the Federation at meetings of the United Nations' International Maritime Organisation. It is gratifying that many emerging lifeboat organisations use the RNLI as a role model, at least in part..