Britain was the first nation in the world to adopt a comprehensive organization for saving life at sea. In 1824 a lifeboatman, William Hillary of the Isle of Man, founded the Royal National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, which then became the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). The lifesaving service in Belgium was established in 1838, that of Denmark in 1848, Sweden in 1856, France in 1865, Germany in 1885, Turkey in 1868, Russia in 1872, Italy in 1879, and Spain in 1880.
In the USA the first local government lifesaving stations were set up in New Jersey in 1848, although one or two community-based organizations had been operating along the coasts since the pioneer Massachusetts Humane Society had been inaugurated in 1789. In 1871 Sumner Kimball (1834–1923) became head of the US Treasury's Revenue Marine Division and undertook a thorough reorganization of its various departments. In 1877 he established what is now the US Coast Guard Academy, and in 1878 became General Superintendent of the new Life-Saving Service, previously part of the Revenue Marine Division. Nowadays, the responsibility for lifesaving in the USA rests with the US Coast Guard helped by AMVER and the US Lifesaving Association.
The following is a brief rundown of the principal lifesaving equipment, but see also breeches buoy; costain gun.1. The Lifeboat. A reasonable definition of a lifeboat would be a boat specifically designed for saving life at sea, although ordinary ships' boats are called lifeboats when engaged in saving life. In Britain Admiral Graves is credited with building a lifeboat in about 1760, but a better claim for being the real initiator in this field is usually given to Lionel Lukin, a coachbuilder. In 1785 he converted a Norwegian yawl by giving it a projecting cork gunwale, air chambers at bow and stern, and a false keel of iron, to provide buoyancy and stability. This he called his ‘insubmergible boat’, but although he took out a patent for it, the invention had no success. However, he did also design an ‘unimmergible’ coble for use at Bamborough, Yorkshire, which saved many lives. It was, incidentally, a coble which Grace Darling and her father used for their famous rescue of several seamen in 1838.Despite Lukin's efforts, it took the wreck of the Adventure in 1789 to dispel public apathy in saving life at sea. This ship was wrecked in rough seas off the mouth of the Tyne River, only 275 metres (900 ft) from the shore, and a large crowd watched helplessly as its crew, one by one, dropped to their death in the fierce seas. A public meeting was held and money raised for the best lifeboat design. Half the prize was won by William Wouldhave, and Henry Greathead, a South Shields boatbuilder, was asked to build a boat to part of Wouldhave's design. Called Original, she was launched the following year, served for 40 years, and saved hundreds of lives. Another outstanding lifeboat designer was the Norwegian yacht designer Colin Archer. Towards the end of the 19th century, he designed sailing rescue boats to work with the Norwegian fishing fleets which became famous for their seaworthiness and lifesaving abilities in the North Sea.From the time it was founded the RNLI has taken, as one of its prime objectives, the development of lifeboats that could survive in any kind of sea, and through the International Lifeboat Federation, its lifeboat designs are used by many national search and rescue (SAR) organizations. It operates five all-weather lifeboat classes, all of which are constructed of fibre reinforced composite or GRP. They are the 17-metre (55-ft 9-in.) 25-knot ‘Severn’, the 16–16.5-metre (52–54-ft 4-in.) 18-knot ‘Arun’, the 14.3-metre (47-ft) 17.6-knot ‘Tyne’, the 14.3-metre (47-ft) 25-knot ‘Trent’, and the 11.8-metre (38-ft 6-in.) 16-knot ‘Mersey’, and they have operating ranges which vary from 140 nautical miles (‘Mersey’) up to 250 nautical miles (‘Severn’ and ‘Trent’). The last of the ‘Arun’ class, introduced in 1971, was built in 1990 and was then replaced by ‘Trent’ and ‘Severn’ class boats, though the ‘Arun’ remains the mainstay of other national SAR organizations. The RNLI currently (2004) operates three types of inshore lifeboats of RIB construction and two small hovercraft.2. The Lifebuoy, or lifebelt, was traditionally a circular ring of cork covered in canvas, for supporting the weight of a man who has fallen overboard, but nowadays it is more likely to be horseshoe shaped. In small craft, a lifebuoy is attached to the vessel by a line to make it easier to haul it back if it is supporting someone who has fallen overboard. It also has attached to it a dan buoy and a lifebuoy light to mark its position, or sometimes a self-igniting smoke float. The best type of lifebuoy light is the one which is stored upside down, but which immediately starts to operate when it is thrown in the water with the lifebuoy and turns the right way up to float.3.The Life Jacket or PFD (personal flotation device). Designed to hold a body upright in the water, the old-fashioned type comprised sections of cork enclosed in canvas which was fashioned to slip over the head, before being secured by tapes round the waist. Nowadays the more modern inflatable type is generally used, which is inflated automatically by a carbon dioxide cylinder attached to the jacket. This is designed to turn an unconscious person so that his nose and mouth are clear of the water, and can support him in this position for at least 24 hours. A minimum of 8 kilograms (18 lb) of buoyancy is recommended by SOLAS, but the British Department of Trade lays down 16 kilograms (35 lb) for adults and 9 (20 lb) for children. Regulations imposed by all maritime nations oblige their ships to carry one for every person on board, as do the various national yachting authorities.4. Liferafts were, originally, any raft made on board ship from any available timber and used for saving life from a sinking ship. This was also one of the purposes of hammocks being stored in nettings during the days of sailing navies so that they could be used as liferafts. During the Second World War (1939–45) many warships and merchant ships carried carley floats. Nowadays, all ships and yachts are required to carry inflatable rubber rafts made of special waterproof material which have separate airtight chambers, survival packs, and emergency equipment such as an EPIRB and distress flares. Those carrying a large number of passengers, such as cruise ships, also have inflatable chutes for the rapid evacuation of passengers into liferafts and lifeboats.5. Lifesling, a rescue system for yachts the main part of which is a horseshoe-shaped buoyancy device that is dragged astern at the end of a long line to retrieve someone who has fallen into the water. Once the person is in the device the boat is stopped, a halyard is attached to the Lifesling, and the person is lifted on deck.6. Helicopters are, with national lifeboat organizations, an integral part of what are known as search and rescue (SAR) operations. For large commercial ships these operations are coordinated globally by the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. With smaller craft, the coordination is the responsibility of the coastguard, or its equivalent. The helicopters are mostly supplied by a nation's air force, or air arm, which have air-sea rescue squadrons crewed by specially trained personnel, though the US Coast Guard has its own helicopters.