Historic lifeboat launched with RNLI guard of honour

After a quick seaworthiness trial the crew relax and enjoy a pleasant cruise.

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By Colin Smeeton

A historic lifeboat, dating back to 1939, received a guard of honour from the Arran RNLI crew at its successful launch in Lamlash Bay.

The RNLB Herbert John, now owned by Alastair Bilsland of Brodick, returned to the water after undergoing a winter refurbishment which saw the vessel being updated with new wiring, some structural work and many layers of fresh paint and varnish.


The historic vessel has a remarkable history and maintains most of its original features. It is a two-masked, wooden hulled Liverpool Class lifeboat which was built for the RNLI in 1939 by Groves and Gutteridge Ltd in Cowes, Isle of Wight.

It served the Cloughey station RNLI in Northern Ireland where it was launched 46 times and saved 67 lives.

In 1952 it began service for the Youghal RNLI in Southern Ireland where it operated until 1966, having launched 14 times, saving 30 lives.

After that she was sold into private ownership and worked as a commercial fishing boat out of Belfast after a conversion which saw the installation of a rather incongruent wheelhouse and forward cabin of sorts.


The previous owner bought her from the fisherman around 2010 and put her into Nelsons boatyard in Donaghadee which specialises in restoring ex-RNLI boats.

Luckily the fisherman had not thrown away any of the boat’s original equipment that was not required so the original masts and other original equipment were available.

The original engine was a petrol 37hp which was replaced with a new 80hp Ford marine diesel.

The restoration was finished in 2013 and the immaculately refurbished boat was then taken to Falmouth where the owner took her on many south coast ex-RNLI boat rallies and shows.

Alastair then bought the vessel in September 2021, as the owner had another ex-RNLI boat and he wanted to downsize, so he agreed to sell his ‘small one’.

Alastair said: ‘Structurally and mechanically she was in remarkable condition for an 84-year-old vessel, but apart from a lot of painting and varnishing she required a degree of re-wiring and some slight structural work.

‘For this I am indebted to Adam Norman at the Lamlash Chandlers and Rory Cowan, boat-builder extraordinaire from Kildonan.

‘I have removed a few original pieces of her equipment which I will not be using, as my intention is to use her for Clyde cruising rather than attending rallies but – as before – everything I have removed has been carefully stored so that the next custodian can put her back to her 1939 condition if wished.

‘There is a plan for the Arran Coastal Rowing Club to do a row round the Kyles of Bute this summer. I am looking forward to being the safety boat for that wee expedition, and as one of the members said, she is probably quite a good sea boat!’

At her first launch from Lamlash pier a crowd of curious onlookers gathered to witness the old boat being launched.

Alastair was joined by family members, some of whom were visiting from New Zealand, along with many other people who had been keeping an eye on the progress of the striking-looking vessel during its refurbishment.

Members of the boating fraternity assisted Alistair when he launched the vessel on a calm evening last week.

Members of the RNLI, many of whom are mariners themselves, have been watching the restoration project keenly, and in honour of her proud RNLI history and service, they gave her a quick guard of honour before returning their modern equivalent back to the boathouse.

A spokesperson from the RNLI said: ‘Seeing the former lifeboat take to the water once more was a great opportunity for today’s volunteer crew at Arran RNLI to see a little bit of lifeboat history, and an honour to be a part of the next chapter of the Herbert John’s story.’

Alastair is in the process of selling his existing yacht and intends to use the Herbert John as his main vessel.

Having previously volunteered his assistance as a safety boat captain for various marine activities and functions, he will continue to do this with his ‘new’ boat and he has also intimated that he would be delighted to play a part in the upcoming Lamlash RNLI open day.