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Marine / Lerwick Lifeboat celebrates 90 years of service to the community

Crew members on the current RNLB Michael and Jane Vernon - (l to r) Stephen Manson, Jason Thomson, Peter Kerr, Kenneth Couper, Gareth Geddes, Nathan Mann, John Best, Ian Harms and coxswain Darren Harcus, June 2019. Photo: RNLI

STAFF and volunteers of the Lerwick Lifeboat are marking the 90th anniversary of the arrival of the station’s first lifeboat, the Lady Jane and Martha Ryland, in July 1930.

The 51ft ‘Barnett-class’ lifeboat was named by the Duchess of Montrose in June 1932 as a crowd of over 2,000 people looked on.

With two 60-horsepower petrol engines, and a top-speed of just under nine knots, the Barnett-class was the most powerful RNLI lifeboat in production at the time.

The naming ceremony of the first Lerwick Lifeboat RNLB Lady Jane and Martha Ryland in Lerwick harbour on 25 June 1932, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Montrose. Photo: RNLI Archives

Since then, four lifeboats have served at the Lerwick RNLI Lifeboat, including the current Severn-class all-weather lifeboat Michael and Jane Vernon, which has been in service since 1997.

RNLB Lady Jane and Martha Ryland leaving Lerwick’s small boat harbour into a hurricane on31 January 1953. Photo: Dennis Coutts

By 1930, a decision to establish a lifeboat station in Lerwick had already been made, but two shipwrecks had highlighted the need for a lifeboat in Shetland.

On 29 March 1930, the fishing trawler Ben Doran foundered on Ve Skerries. Despite efforts by local boats to reach the stricken vessel in gales and heavy seas, nine lives were lost.

The nearest lifeboat in Stromness had also been called to assist, making a return journey of around 260 miles and 55 hours away from her own station in Orkney.

Two weeks later, on 10 April, the passenger vessel St Sunniva ran aground on Mousa in thick fog. All 40 or so passengers and crew were safely landed from vessel but not before the Stromness lifeboat had already launched.

The loss of the Ben Doran prompted calls for another lifeboat station on the westside of Shetland and the Aith Lifeboat station was also established in 1933.

Another Barnett-class lifeboat (Mk II) – the Claude Cecil Staniforth – arrived in Lerwick in 1958 and was in service for 20 years until 1978. Then Arun-class lifeboat Soldian served from 1978 until 1997, when the current Severn-class Michael and Jane Vernon took up service.

The 17-metre (56 feet) all-weather lifeboat is largest and most powerful in the RNLI’s fleet, with two “MTU” engines that produce up to 1600 horsepower, a top speed of 25 knots and a range of 250 nautical miles.

Crew of the RNLB Claude Cecil Staniforth – (left to right) Coxswain George Leith, Peter Leith, Alex Fraser, John Mouat, Bunty Smith, Ian Fraser and Hewitt Clark, September 1969.

The fibreglass reinforced composite hull and self-righting capability means that the vessel can undertake long searches in the very worst of sea conditions.

Over the years, volunteer crews of Lerwick Lifeboat have been involved in many rescues, saving over 800 lives.

Their service has been recognised with 62 RNLI Gallantry Awards, including the most recent RNLI gold medal awarded to Coxswain/Mechanic Hewitt Clark for the rescue of five crew of the Green Lily off Bressay in November 1997.

Lifeboat operations manager Malcolm Craigie said: “There’s a lot of maritime activity around the coast of Shetland and Lerwick Lifeboat has been involved in several high profile rescues over the years.

“Our volunteer crew are always available to help save lives at sea, whenever we’re needed, and there many people in our island community who have connections to Lerwick Lifeboat, past and present.”

He added: “The RNLI has provided four lifeboats over the last 90 years, the costs of which have been entirely met by donations. We’re grateful to all those in Shetland and elsewhere who have helped fund our lifeboat – and we hope that they’ll continue to do so for the next 90 years.”