Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


A lifeboat is a boat designed to save lives of people in trouble at sea. There are two quite different usages. One usage is the lifeboats carried by passenger ships, the other the boats designed to be launched as coastal rescue vehicles.

The lifeboat at Brixham, south Devon, England, kept permanently afloat
in the harbour.

The first boat specialized as a lifeboat was tested on the River Tyne on January 29, 1790.

Ship-launched lifeboats

These are large whaleboats designed to be lowered from davits on a ship's deck. They are designed to be unsinkable, with buoyancy that cannot be damaged. They have a cover that can be erected to form a storm shelter. They usually carry three days of food and water, oars, and an engine, heater and basic navigational equipment. Lifeboats for the North Sea included an electric heater for the engine oil, which was left on in cold weather. Modern lifeboats should also carry an emergency position-indicating rescue beacon.

Traditionally, lifeboats for passages in the Pacific or Indian Oceans were thought unsafe unless they permitted self-rescue. Thus these also included sailing equipment, navigational equipment, solar water stills, rainwater catchments and fishing equipment.

Also see the discussion in dinghy and liferaft.

Rescue lifeboats

This type of lifeboat is also occasionally known as a rescue boat. These are designed to be launched from shore, and rescue ships' crews out to a hundred miles or so. Their most unique traits are that they can be launched in any weather, through heavy surf. Modern lifeboats have diesel power and are fast but have a limited rescue radius. Older lifeboats have sails, which are more reliable, slower, and have an unlimited rescue radius. Both types remain in use. All lifeboats of this type have radios to help locate the ships, as well as whale-boats, slings to rescue injured persons, and medical and succoring supplies, such as food.

The most famous group maintaining these lifeboats is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (or RNLI) of the United Kingdom, composed of volunteers, and paid for by voluntary donation - web-site at Most scandinavian countries also have active volunteer lifeboat societies. The local branch of a society generally schedules practices, maintains a lifeboat and shed, and is contacted by commercial marine radio operators when a rescue is needed.

In Australasia, surf lifesaving clubs operate inflatable rescue boats (IRB) for in-shore rescues of swimmers and surfers. These boats are best typified by the rubber Zodiac and are powered by an outboard motor. The rescue personnel wear wet suits and expect to get wet. The Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat (RIB) is now seen as the best type of craft for in-shore rescues as they are less likely to be tipped over by the wind or breakers. Specially designed Jet rescue boats have also been used successfully. Unlike ordinary pleasure craft, these small to medium sized rescue craft often have very low freeboard so that victims can be taken aboard without lifting. This means that the boats are designed to operate with water inside the boat hull and rely on flotation tanks rather than hull displacement to stay afloat and upright.

Other Usages

Lifeboat is a 1944 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.