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Saviours on the high seas

A visit to a lifeboat station promises far more than nautical tales of derring-do. Chris Fautley reports

During an average school day, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution will rescue seven people - one of whom would almost certainly have died without their help. Over the same period, theirlifeboats will have spent more than nine hours at sea.

These are just two facts from the RNLI's staggering range of educational resources. From videos to audio cassettes, posters to worksheets, there is something for all ages, covering a vast array of topics, with strong emphasis on safety at sea.

Better still, visit a lifeboat station. Facilities vary, and not all of them accept visitors. But stations such as Hastings and Blackpool have visitor centres and viewing galleries. Hastings, for example, has an education room where staff run question and answer sessions and show safety videos. Other stations offer a guided tour through the boathouse. But where possible, the teams running Britain's lifeboats - mostly volunteers - are happy to show visitors around.

Some stations display the numbers of lifeboats launched and lives saved over the decades. Others display dramatic photographs of lifeboats in action.

There is more to see at all-weather, as opposed to inshore, stations, and these are staffed by a full-time mechanic or cox, who can explain the technology that is now carried on the lifeboats. Times have changed since the 19th century, when lifeboats were glorified rowing boats.

Today's all-weather lifeboats carry an Integrated Navigation System - radar and the Global Positioning System - which charts a boat's course and speed, and automatically corrects it if necessary. All-weather boats also use chart-plotting software unique to the RNLI. This allows the crew to plan and execute search patterns far more efficiently than if they were relying on paper charts. Radio equipment includes two VHF radios - the primary means of communication. They also carry medium and high frequency radios, used by merchant shipping.

Their newest piece of equipment enables crews to tap into the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. Vessels carrying it are able to transmit their identity (like a telephone number), the nature of the distress, and their position, at the tap of a button, saving vital seconds.

The Mersey class, a typical all-weather boat, is powered by two V8 turbo-charged engines of some 290hp; range is about 240km. They are built from aluminium and a fibre re-enforced composite. Slipway-launched boats have a predominantly steel hull, interesting to those studying materials and their properties.

Many stations also give visitors the chance to examine the crews' gear - a far cry from the oilskins and cork lifejackets of yesteryear. An all-weather outfit now comprises a lightweight, lined, fibreglass safety helmet; a self-inflating life jacket "powered" by CO2 that inflates upon submersion; a safety harness; waterproof jacket and trousers; gloves; and shin-high, lined boots with steel toe caps.

Station visits range from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the facilities. It may be wise to incorporate a visit into a broader theme. Last term, for example,Year 6 pupils from St Mary Cray primary school in Kent visited Hastings lifeboat station during a themed teamwork week. "The message you get here with lifeboats is in keeping with what we want in terms of the week," says headteacher John Masson. "We've been coming for eight years. I highly recommend it."

The Mary Cray's children were delighted when, at the end of the visit, they were told that there is a special place on the lifeboat's bow for making wishes. Twenty-seven hands touched the magic spot and made 27 wishes.

Hopefully none requiring a lifeboat.

www.rnli.org.uk has a section designed for children. It contains a list of educational resources and an order form for free information booklets, including a lifeboat station guide - essential when planning a visit. Tel: 01202 663000; email: youth_education@rnli.org.uk.

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