The National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck was born in 1824 largely through the efforts of Sir William Hillary, a resident of the Isle of Man. In 1854 this evolved into the Royal National Lifeboat Institution better known perhaps by its initials, the RNLI.
The first RNLI lifeboat, Zelinda, was delivered to Portrush in December 1860 largely through the efforts of Laura, Countess of Antrim and petitions from local people around the coast. Lord Antrim (Laura’s brother-in-law) gave the site for a boathouse and a subscription of £25 towards building costs which were estimated at £100. Zelinda was a 30 feet (9.14m) long with a 7 foot (2.13m) beam and power came from sails on two collapsible masts or from six Portrush fishermen at her oars.
Transported on her purpose-built carriage from the Boathouse on Kerr Street she could be launched into the sea from either the West or East side of Portrush depending on the location of the vessel in distress and the prevailing weather conditions. She possessed “the usual important qualities of the Institution of self-righting and self-ejecting seas shipped”. Portrush thus became the 109th lifeboat station established by the RNLI.
Through a series of unfortunate events, culminating the wreck of the Providence on the Skerries with the loss of six local men’s lives, the lifeboat station was almost moved to Greencastle. However, timely intervention by the local Presbyterian Minister, Reverend Jonathon Simpson and Lady Laura, Dowager Countess of Antrim persuaded the RNLI to keep the lifeboat in Portrush.
Zelinda was later renamed Laura in recognition of Lady Laura’s role in the establishment and retention of the lifeboat station in Portrush. During her 16 years of service Zelinda/Laura saved 21 lives.
A new lifeboat John Whitaker arrived in Portrush by train in October 1876 to replace Laura. Modifications were carried out to the boathouse to accommodate this longer and wider vessel. However, plans were afoot to build a new boathouse on the eastern shore of the peninsula to overcome many of the problems associated with the location on Kerr Street. In 13 years of service John Whitaker saved 32 lives in rescue missions to six vessels.
In 1889, barely a month after arriving in Portrush, new lifeboat, Robert & Agnes Blair, launched with 13 men on board. A schooner, Dryad, was in difficulties off the White Rocks during a gale. Unfortunately the crew could not find Dryad due to the poor visibility, the stormy seas and “the thickness of the showers”.
The gale precluded a return to Portrush so a course was set for Portballintrae but its harbour was too dangerous to attempt a landing. Heading for Blackrock Strand, with the intention of beaching the Lifeboat, the vessel capsized in the enormous waves throwing the crew into the water.
Despite rescue attempts by men on the beach, including Mr William Traill of the Causeway Tramway, only 10 men emerged from the sea alive. William McNeill, Galbraith Grills and James McAlister drowned on that fateful morning and are buried in Old Ballywillan Church cemetery overlooking the peninsula and the Atlantic Ocean which claimed them.
The Dryad meanwhile, thanks to the skill of her Captain, had managed to avoid the rocks and was able to proceed to Larne. Robert & Agnes Blair was recovered and went on to serve for another 13 years during which 12 lives were saved.
In 1892 a slipway was constructed on the eastern shore of Portrush near Port-an-Dhu harbour to make it easier and safer to launch the lifeboat. This slipway became the basis for a new Lifeboat house at Lansdowne which opened in 1902.
Coincidently a new lifeboat Hopwood arrived which had been built to “suit the (new) house and slipway”. Hopwood was, like all her predecessors a “pulling and sailing” lifeboat i.e. it relied upon men at the oars or the wind in its sails for motive power. With the arrival of the next lifeboat this would change.
A new motor-powered lifeboat T.B.B.H. arrived on the evening of 16 July 1924 having been brought all the way from its builder’s yard by a local Portrush crew. It was a 45-foot Watson type lifeboat and was the gift of four benefactors to the R.N.L.I. – Mrs Margaret Phoebe Thornton, Mr Thomas Bartlett, Miss Isabella Louisa Broustred and Miss Arabella Hooper. The initial letters of their surnames were incorporated into the name of the lifeboat.
The welcome for the new vessel was remarkable and shows the high esteem in which the lifeboat and its crew were held by the local community. As the lifeboat approached Portrush Harbour at the end of its eight day journey from Cowes on the Isle of Wight the pier was packed with people and all vantage points on Ramore Head were crowded. Rockets were fired and a bonfire lit on the headland. As the lifeboat came to anchor in the fading light the Doxology was sung and the disembarking crew was cheered by the waiting crowd.
T.B.B.H. was not officially named until Saturday 18th August 1928 When the Duchess of Abercorn performed that ceremony and formally opened the new boathouse in the harbour. T.B.B.H. served throughout the second World War with the crew being summoned to callouts by the honorary secretary’s three sons running from door to door as the normal procedure of firing maroons was not permitted. They had to wear white coats at night and carry special permits. She saved ten lives during the war.
T.B.B.H. was retired from service in 1949 – her last duty being to lead her replacement Lady Scott into Portrush Harbour on the evening of Monday 18th July 1949. Another Watson type lifeboat, Lady Scott was the gift of the Civil Service Lifeboat Fund. The naming ceremony on Wednesday 17th August 1949 was a grand, but dignified occasion with many fine speeches, music from the First King’s Dragoon Guards Band which ended with tea being served to all the distinguished guests in the Northern Counties Hotel.
In October 1960 Lady Scott took part in one of the most daring rescues undertaken by a Portrush Lifeboat when she saved the lives of fourteen crew from the cargo vessel Argo Delos aground on rocks at Torr Beg, a rocky islet five miles off Malin Head. In conjunction with a Royal Naval Frigate, HMS Leopard, and a Royal Naval Air Service helicopter from RNAS Eglinton and with superb seamanship by the coxswain of the lifeboat, Sam Cunningham, and his crew a total of twenty nine crew were rescued. No lives were lost.
For this service Sam Cunningham received the RNLI Silver Medal and Robert McMullan, Second Coxswain, received the RNLI Bronze medal and the remainder of the crew received the Institution’s Thanks on Vellum. Lady Scott served for almost 32 years at Portrush during which time she was extensively re-fitted and modernised and saved many lives.
1981 saw the arrival of a lifeboat with a top speed almost double that of Lady Scott – 16 knots – and a much greater range.
The Arun Class “Richard Evans”, named after the RNLI’s greatest living hero, was a completely different craft from any that had served at Portrush. She was a Fast Afloat Boat featuring a flying bridge for excellent vantage for the Coxswain, cutaway sides to assist recovery of survivors from the water, powerful diesel engines and a host of modern electronic navigation, radar, communications, echo sounding and direction finding equipment.
A major change was that this new lifeboat did not require a boathouse and so remained on view at her moorings in the harbour. Richard Evans was to be a busy lifeboat during its years of service with a much increased frequency of services, many in quick succession and many in extreme weather.
In February 1989 Richard Evans launched to assist a grounded trawler, Osako, near Main Head and Lough Swilly. This was to be no ordinary launch: Hurricane force winds had struck the North Coast and Richard Evans left the harbour into 30-foot waves and 113 miles-per-hour winds. The full story of this service is told by one of the crew that day, Mark Mitchell, in the “Voices from and about the past” section of this website. During its 19 years at Portrush Richard Evans saved 70 lives in the course of 316 services
As the boathouse was no longer required as a boathouse various conversions were carried out internally to provide crew facilities, toilets and a souvenir sales shop. A later conversion provided accommodation for an inshore lifeboat.
Richard Evans was replaced in 2000 by a new Severn Class lifeboat, the first to be stationed in Northern Ireland. Named Katie Hannan, in honour of the lady who gave £1.1 million towards its construction, this vessel was once again a step change from previous lifeboats. With a range of 250 nautical miles, a top speed of 25 knots (almost 29 miles-per-hour) and with a displacement of 38.5 tonnes this new boat, designed and constructed by the RNLI, was the cutting edge of lifeboat technology. Within two weeks of going officially “on station” Katie Hannan was in action rescuing a yacht in difficulties in heavy seas just south of Islay, the first of many services.
In 2004 Coleraine Borough Council granted the Freedom of the Borough, the highest honour that a civic authority can bestow, to the Royal national Lifeboat Institution. Portrush Station was at the time the busiest in Northern Ireland.
On the night of Tuesday 29th January 2008, whilst involved in a hazardous operation to save a fishing boat with three men on board, just outside the harbour on Rathlin Island, an unusually large wave lifted the 40 tonne lifeboat on to the rocks where it became firmly wedged. All immediate efforts to re-float the lifeboat failed and worsening weather over the next few days precluded further attempts so the hull sustained considerable damage from being battered by heavy seas.
A replacement lifeboat from the RNLI reserve fleet was brought to Portrush to take over while arrangements were made to remove the engines, valuable electronic equipment and other fittings from the stranded lifeboat. Katie Hannan was finally re-floated but now as a bare, patched hull, and taken back to Poole in Dorset. Sadly she never again went to sea.
A permanent replacement was provided by another Severn Class lifeboat the William Gordon Burr which is the lifeboat currently on station.
The Portrush lifeboat has, since it first arrived, been an important part of the life of the town and its people. A fishing town and popular as a coastal resort; there is no shortage of calls to respond to for the crew of local volunteers. Nor is there any lack of support for fundraising which is managed locally by a dedicated team of volunteers.
All lifeboats have a unique identification number. The first part indicates the class. Severn class lifeboats start with 17 because they are just over 17m in length. The numbers after the dash refer to the build number- so the first Severn built was given the number 17-01. A build number with two digits indicates a hull constructed of fibre-reinforced composite (FRC), and three digits indicate a hull made of aluminium. The William Gordon Burr is identified as ‘17-30’.
The main lifeboat is supported by a smaller inshore D Class lifeboat with a crew of three which deals with emergencies closer to the shore. The bright orange colour of the boats means that it is easily seen and identified, as orange is the complimentary colour of blue (the sky and sea).
Extracted from “From Laura to Katie” by Hugh McGrattan: publisher Portrush Lifeboat Raft Race Committee 2008 with the kind permission of the author.
The RNLI now also provides Lifeguards during holiday seasons for the two beaches at Portrush. Daily during the summer and at intervals during other holidays, bank holidays and weekends throughout the year, the Lifeguard team work to ensure all the swimmers, surfers and holidaymakers can safely enjoy the waters.
To be a RNLI lifeguard is an important responsibility, so applicants must qualify through training and testing. Lifeguards must be able to swim 200m in 3 ½ minutes, 400m in 7 ½ minutes, a 25m underwater with a 25m surface swim in under 50 seconds and a 200m beach run in under 40 seconds.