Atlantic College students' RIB sea safety revolution
- 15 May 2011
- From the section South East Wales
"Now, class, your homework is to develop a new type of speed boat that will revolutionise life-saving and boat design."
That is what might have been said to dozens of students at Atlantic College, Vale of Glamorgan, during the 1960s and early 1970s.
And, incredibly, they went on to do just that by creating the the Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat, or RIB.
With its solid bottom and flexible sides, the RIB has become a cornerstone of modern boating, with umpteen variations in use for leisure, by the military and, crucially for this story, in life-saving.
For the RIB began life as an idea by teenagers studying at the boarding school housed in 12th-Century St Donat's Castle on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel.
The college, founded in 1962 by the German educationalist who also set up Gordonstoun School which was attended by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales - was run by a retired RN rear admiral, Desmond Hoare.
So, with sailing and canoeing on the timetable, combined with a commitment to hands-on community work by the 220-odd students at the time, it is perhaps no surprise that the college also had its own inshore lifeboat station.
Those students who took to the water for fun were the same ones who had to take turns four hours per week in the rescue boats for others doing the same thing.
They quickly came to the conclusion that the all-rubber boats they had for the job could be improved to better cope with the rough and tumble conditions of the Bristol Channel.
David Sutcliffe, a member of the college's founding staff in 1962, has since written a book about those pioneering days: The RIB: the Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Lifeboat and its Place of Birth - the Atlantic College.
He said: "They key thing was marrying together a high performance hull and a rubber tube."
"The students were always full of ideas. They did the building. We must have built 30 boats in the 1960s. They were all taken out and bashed around."
Those prototypes were made using marine plywood, with students spending hours in the workshop fixing the wood and rubber together.
Mr Sutcliffe said: "Desmond Hoare had a simple motto: if it works, improve it, if it doesn't, chuck it out.
"We had lots of experiences of it going wrong. If it was no good for our work on the Bristol Channel, then the boat came back in pieces.
"We went to sea every day throughout the year, so it was a tough research station."
Slowly, improvement by improvement, the students all but carved out a template for the modern-day light, fast, powerful RIB.
Along the way, this included equally pioneering innovations such as "wheeled" steering for the outboard engines and removing the transom to allow water to flow out.
The breakthrough in recognition came in 1969 when two Dutch students built a boat for a team in a round-Britain powerboat boat race.
Their entry, Psychedelic Surfer, took just three weeks to construct. This included perfecting a twin-engined wheeled steering.
They came in a credible 19th out of some 60 entries, beating many boats with small fortunes invested in them.
"It was the hero of the race. This proved that this type of boat could stand up to the worst conditions, outperforming many types of boat," said Mr Sutcliffe.
The RNLI was one of the first organisations to see that the RIB was the future.
The charity took on the idea and perfected a glass-reinforced fibre model, the B-Class Atlantic 21, named in honour of the college.
All this for £1, which was how much the charity paid to purchase the patent the rear admiral had by then submitted.
But he never cashed the cheque, and money remains a "painful" issue, according to Mr Sutcliffe.
He said valuations of the RIB market suggest an early patent would now be earning £15m a year.
He said: "We lost an opportunity of funding the college. It would not have occurred to Desmond to get a commercial advantage out of it.
"One can only look back and say that that was a might-have-been."
But the college's loss has been boating's gain.
The Atlantic 21 became part of the RNLI fleet in 1972 and by August 1993 it had made 15,601 launches and saved 4,717 lives.
A boat made from the original mould created by the students has gone on display at the National Waterfront Museum's Frontiers Gallery in Swansea until the end of May.
Hugh Fogarty, RNLI head of fleet operations, said: "The rigid inflatable boat was one of the biggest leaps in small boat design since the introduction of the inflatable.
"In the early days Atlantic College students and staff involved in the design worked collaboratively with the RNLI.
"Today the RNLI's two models of rigid inflatable lifeboat, the work-horses of the RNLI fleet, are classified as "B-class Atlantic 75 and Atlantic 85" in recognition of the designs' origins - a true testimony to those who designed and developed it.'