The basic shape of a traditional lifeboat is a long shallow keel, double ended and beamy – ideal for conversion into a cruising boat

Modern ships’ lifeboats are much more likely to save your life by keeping you dry and warm than their open boat predecessors, should you be unlucky enough to need one.

They may resemble orange submarines but they have a fit-for-purpose design.

However, there was a time when a ship’s lifeboat actually looked like a boat and they were often used for conversions into sailing or motor yachts once their mother ships were scrapped.

The London Nautical School was founded as a consequence of the inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic.

As we know, there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers when the great ship hit an iceberg, so the fundamentals of London Nautical School training included navigation and lifeboat launching.

An orange lifeboat on a river

A closed liferaft moored on a riverbank on the River Thames. Credit: Daniel Bond/Alamy

The school’s yard had a traditional lifeboat on davits and boats afloat in the docks and river ready for rowing at 0800 on a Monday morning all year round.

Navigation, communications and ship construction classes were daily events. The idea was to supply competent ships’ officers.

The honours board in the school’s hall names many master mariners including a First Sea Lord.

The school’s boats were double-ended heavy sea boats of wooden, clinker construction.

Often 28ft in length, they were hardy vessels and their type had undertaken many long passages from Captain Bligh’s adventure to Sir Ernest Shackleton’s great voyage.

The art master at the school, Crawford Dew, had been trained to paint by Shackleton’s daughter and, being a keen East Coast sailor himself, created several fine paintings illustrating the James Caird lifeboat on her passage from Antarctica to South Georgia.

An Emsworth lugger boat on a shingle beach with a red sail hoisted

Clive’s Emsworth Lugger – hull taken from a local working boat

One hangs in Dulwich College, where you’ll also find the James Caird today.

Some ships’ lifeboats were just for rowing; many carried a simple sailing rig, usually a lug sail, while others had an inboard engine and were often used as harbour launches when in port.

I undertook several sea passages at school and was always more interested in the ship’s boats than in the actual ships.

When I finally went to sea as a navigation officer cadet, I was pleased to be given responsibility for maintaining the two ship’s lifeboats.

Both were traditionally-shaped vessels, made of aluminium rather than wood. The port-side boat was oars only and the starboard boat had a small inboard engine which was maintained by the junior engineer officer.

There were 29 of us on board, and there came a time when only one boat was operational…

Not invincible

When off watch or duty one of my favourite pastimes was to sit in the port-side boat with a good book and watch the seas rolling by, at times towering higher than the side of the ship.

When I was on leave, a wave broke over our stern port side and smashed into my lifeboat, removing all contents before folding it flat.

Continues below…

The weight of that water also bent the railings.

I’d always thought the chances of getting a lifeboat off the side of a ship in typical winter North Atlantic conditions were 50/50 at best, and this incident confirmed how they could be smashed against the ship’s side in heavy seas.

The modern system of shoot launching over the stern looks like it would stand a greater chance of success.

Lifeboat conversions

The basic shape of a traditional lifeboat is a long shallow keel, double ended and beamy, ideal for conversion into a cruising boat.

Many old ones can still be seen on the Thames and Medway. Early conversions often featured built up topsides and a cabin.

The condition of these boats tends to reflect the condition of their owners. Some boats also carried a basic sailing rig and could be classified as motorsailers.

An old photo showing men wearing white and rowing a boat on a river

London Nautical School Cadets rowing past Parliament in the 1960s

Many early practical boat owners started their projects with a sound lifeboat hull.

The modern submarine-style ships’ lifeboats are a different kettle of fish altogether, but some are converted into motorboats and the larger ones often into houseboats.

There are many websites that show what can be done with these practical boat hulls. Search for ‘lifeboat conversions’.

But I like traditional shaped boats such as Sussex Beach boats and others that share certain features found in ship’s lifeboats.

The somewhat faded photo (above) shows London Nautical School cadets rowing past Parliament in their traditional boats on the fast flowing Thames.

No buoyancy aids, no anchor and little built in buoyancy. What could possibly go wrong?

Luckily, nothing ever did and this was partly because we were warned if we did fall in, we’d be sent to St Thomas’s hospital for a stomach pump. No thanks!

A boat on a trailer in a driveway

Clive’s newish Smack’s boat based on a traditional working boat from Maldon

Many boatbuilders take mouldings from old working boats as a basis for conversions into traditional sailing boats.

My Smack’s Boat and Emsworth Lugger are two examples.

I’ve also bought several small commercial Sussex Beach boats and introduced a mast, rudder and leeboards with some success.

However, you might find a builder of traditional fishing boats who would obviously do a better job of conversion and you would end up with a unique boat.

I plan to get around to it one day!

Smack’s boat specifications

Model: Smack’s boat
Type: Simulated Clinker in GRP
Length: 12ft 3in (3.73m)
Beam: 5ft (1.52m)
Draught: 6in (15cm) plate up or 2ft 9in (84cm) plate down
Sail area: approx 82ft2 (7.61m2)
Weight: approx 250lb (113kg)

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