The Key To Saving Lives At Sea

Tucked away in a quiet corner of East Cowes, a dedicated team of 70 professionals work tirelessly to ensure that the waters, not just round the Island, but the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland, are a safer place to be.

It’s all about saving lives at sea, and without their expertise a huge sector of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution would all but grind to a halt. Virtually anyone you talk to is well aware of the RNLI, a registered  charity, and the incredible life-saving work they carry out, often in horrendous conditions.

The RNLI’s East Cowes complex, the Inshore Lifeboat Centre (ILC), has been in existence more than 60 years, and is where lifeboats are built and maintained. But in fact the RNLI’s boatbuilding connection in Cowes shipyards stretches back more than 100 years, when lifeboats were built at the yards of JS White and Groves and Gutteridge.

Much has changed in that time. Now the ILC, responsible for all types of the RNLI’s rigid inflatable boats -RIBs – runs like clockwork. The whole complex is efficient and spotlessly clean, and with the RNLI being a charity, every penny donated is put to good use.

Every nut and bolt is accounted for, and waste is virtually non-existent. The way the factory operates has become the template for many other major British companies. This is also where around 98 percent of the inshore lifeboats that are used by the RNLI are constructed. Scores more arrive each year from all parts of the UK and Ireland for repairs or maintenance.

Not surprising then that over the years the ILC has become highly respected across the world as a centre of excellence for research and development, building and maintenance of inflatable and rigid inflatable lifeboats.

Indeed, this is the only place in the world where such complex lifeboat work is carried out, and the factory operates in tandem with the RNLI site in Poole, where the core functions to ensure the charity works are situated, along with a training college, and is where the country’s all-weather lifeboats are built and refitted.  

Glyn Ellis is Operations Manager for the East Cowes ILC, and has been working there for 20 years. A Liverpudlian, he moved to the Island 35 years ago, and was awarded the MBE in this year’s Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for his services to the RNLI, and Island community work, including the Isle of Wight Fundraising Guild. He admitted the honour ‘came as a complete shock’. Glyn will accept this in early March at the Palace and said: “This is for my whole team at ILC and the Island’s brilliant volunteer fundraisers that make it all possible, along with our brave volunteer crews on the Island.”

Glyn continued: “The ILC building incorporates a dedicated laminating shop as well as spray booths, a machine shop and welding bay, along with other key workshop and office facilities. It allows around 50 boats to be built here each year, while between 150 and 200 boats go through for repairs and refurbishments every 12 months.

“Each year we build eight new B Class RIBs, known as Atlantic 85s. They are capable of 35 knots, normally carry four crew, and up to 20 casualties. They have radar, GPS and all the modern navigation equipment and carry enough fuel to work three hours flat out.

“The smaller D Class are fully inflatable boat with a single engine, and have limited night time capability. So they usually work closer to shore. They have two or three crew, and can carry five casualties. The D Class cost over £52,000 to build, and the Atlantics cost over £214,000 each.”

Glyn continued: “We have 70 staff, including boatbuilders, electricians, fitters, mechanics, solutionists, storemen and office staff, and we are very commercially minded because we know we have to break even.

“It costs around £3million a year to fund the site, and we make sure we get the balance right with donations we receive, as we get no other funding.

“That is why our running costs have been reduced by nearly £1million since 2008, and that process has been developed by the workforce. People donate us money, and it is important that we show them that every penny is used wisely. We love people to come and visit us to see what we are all about, and how their donations are spent.”

There are about 100 lifeboat stations around the UK and Ireland where Atlantics are used, and a further 110 D Class stations. Some larger stations have both D and B Class boats on hand. The ILC ensures that if something goes wrong with a RIB anywhere in the UK or Ireland, there is always spare or relief boat to use. So if, for example, a boat is damaged in Blackpool, the ILC will have a replacement boat delivered to them within 24 hours, bringing back their damaged boat for repairs.

Glyn added: “Overall we carry out 40 D Class refits and just over 20 on B Class. And with repairs between 150 and 200 boats and engines go through the workshops each year.  That is why time is always of the essence, and something the employees have off to a fine art. As a result each stage of the ‘conveyor belt’ new build/ refit takes just 59 hours. Basically that means one boat comes into ILC every 59 hours, and one boat goes out every 59 hours, for 46 weeks of the year.

“A boat is rarely in the building more than 10 weeks. Not so long ago that time was 22 weeks, underlining the streamlining that the complex now prides itself on. That is why all the equipment and materials are ready and on hand for each area the boat goes through, and in the storeroom all the necessary parts are meticulously prepared, and are there waiting, so no time is wasted, and money is saved.”  

The RNLI wants to focus on halving the drownings around the UK and Republic of Ireland by 2024 by working with  communities and partners to help prevent incidents, while continuing their rescue work.


For more information call (01983) 292521

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