Heroes: There are over 5,600 lifeboat crew members in the UK and Ireland, saving thousands of lives a year.

Many people take lifeboats for granted – but they were not always there! Learn about the story behind them and how their brave crews today save thousands of lives a year from deadly storms.

  • What is a lifeboat?

    It is a boat designed specially to rescue people in trouble at sea. Lots of lifeboats are kept on ships in case of emergency. Others are much larger boats that can travel long distances. They are kept on land and can be launched when somebody further out to sea calls for help.

    The world’s first lifeboat was made in 1789, when there was a competition to design a boat to save lives. Now, lifeboats are used by millions of people worldwide.

  • What is the RNLI?

    The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a charity that provides a 24-hour sea rescue service in the UK and Ireland. It was first set up in 1824. At that time, there were about 1,800 shipwrecks a year in Britain.

    Today, travelling by boat is much safer, but problems sometimes arise. RNLI is there to help. Most people at RNLI are volunteers who help those who have problems at sea. The charity has saved more than 143,000 lives.

  • Are there different kinds of lifeboat?

    Yes! The RNLI has 10 different models. The largest are called “all-weather” boats. This means that they are prepared for wind, rain and massive waves. They are used for long journeys far out to sea during storms.

    Smaller boats are used in the water around cliffs and caves. The RNLI also has a hovercraft that speeds over mudflats and shallow water.

  • What do volunteers wear?

    The boats have to be ready for difficult weather. But the crews have to be prepared, too. They wear three layers of clothing and to stay dry: a base layer next to the skin, a middle layer and a breathable top layer. On top is a lifejacket. The first lifejackets were simple canvas vests with cork sewn inside them.

    Modern lifejackets are made of a strong, soft plastic called vinyl. They are much more comfortable than the original cork designs from the 1800s – and much easier to move around in!

  • Who was Grace Darling?

    She was a lighthouse keeper’s daughter from the north of England. In 1838, a ship crashed against rocks nearby. Grace and her father took a small fishing boat to reach the survivors. Her father climbed onto the slippery rocks to reach the people. Meanwhile, Grace looked after the boat to make sure it didn’t capsize.

    Together, they saved nine people. Grace won the RNLI’s Silver Medal for Gallantry. She was only 22 and the first woman to win the prize. Today, she is still remembered as a lifeboating heroine.

  • Do lifeboats and their crews only work at sea?

    No! RNLI volunteers often work as lifeguards, helping when people get into trouble at the beach.

    There are also lifeboats that work on big rivers, like the Severn. The RNLI even has a boat specially designed for the Thames. It is the fastest boat in the fleet and can reach speeds of more than 40 miles per hour.

You Decide

  1. Would you volunteer to work on a lifeboat?


  1. Make an RNLI poster. Draw a picture of a lifeboat and label each section.

Word Watch

An organisation that helps people in need. It does not make money as a business does. Most people who work for charity are volunteers. This means they are not paid.
A shipwreck is when a ship is destroyed or lost at sea, often during a storm.
A large vehicle that looks a little like a boat and can glide just as easily over water, land, or, ice. It travels very quickly across shallow water and mud by trapping a cushion of air underneath itself and then floating along on top of it.
A large section of land that is covered by water at high tide but left uncovered at low tide. The mud is very wet, and you can get stuck in it, making it very dangerous to walk on.
A type of tree with bark that is very light and watertight. It is often used to make bottle stops for wine.
A coastal tower, often near rocks, with a flashing light at the top. The light acts as a warning of danger for passing boats and ships. In the past, people lived in them to control the lights, but nowadays the lights are usually automatic.
To turn over. When a boat capsizes, it flips over upside down in the water.
Another word for courage, especially in battles
A group of ships commanded by the same person. Often used to describe ships in a country’s navy.

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