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Why Are Lifeboats Orange?

5th May 2021
Dunmore East RNLI tows home a sailing dinghy
Dunmore East RNLI tows home a sailing dinghy

I've never given much thought to why lifeboats are orange. It just seemed to me to be the right colour to be seen easily at sea.

Now I know that it's also a colour that provides reassurance and relief - so the RNLI has told me.

Their boats weren't always the shade of orange that now designates them.

In the 1800s they were painted ultramarine blue until artists from the UK Royal Academy complained in the 20s that the colour was "too French" and it was changed to a darker royal blue in 1923 - with the oars on the rowing lifeboats of the time painted blue and white – different colours for the different sides of the boats which helped Coxswain's instructions as "pull away blues…or whites" for whichever side he needed power from.

Last year 53 per cent of the 945 calls for help which led to lifeboat launches happened in June, July and AugustLast year 53 per cent of the 945 calls for help which led to lifeboat launches happened in June, July and August

In the 1950s red, white and blue, - a touch of French again – was the colour, and there was a grey on superstructures, which was changed to orange on the advice of best visibility at sea. Boats had a blue hull and a red boot top stripe… and later crew gear became yellow, again, easy to see…

The hulls of the offshore boats are still blue… but the superstructure orange is what grabs attention and the inshore boats are also orange.

What brought my thoughts to this is the increased number of emergency call-outs to the RNLI and where they are coming from - kayakers, swimmers, canoeists, paddleboarders, anglers, jet-skis and walkers near the coast, being cut off by tides, feature regularly.

Last year 53 per cent of the 945 calls for help which led to lifeboat launches happened in June, July and August and, with the 'holiday at home' emphasis this year, it could be a busy Summer for lifeboat stations and crews.

There is an increase of interest in marine leisure – good to see – but safety must be paramount, and in this regard, I got a lot of response to my last Podcast, about the use of flares in emergencies. … Are flares or electronics best for emergencies? That seems an open debate, about which more will be heard, and there does seem increasing dependence on mobile phones – not the best option, but better than nothing.

The sight of an orange lifeboat heading to the rescue will always be a relief. This month is the RNLI's Mayday campaign and, with restrictions limiting public collections, do connect with that orange colour and help ensure that it can be seen, when needed, at sea.

Podcast below

Tom MacSweeney

About The Author

Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney writes a weekly column for Afloat.ie. He also presents the radio programme Maritime Ireland on radio stations around Ireland.

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