The Zetland Lifeboat – Restoring the world’s oldest lifeboat

The Zetland Lifeboat

What is the Zetland?

Built in 1802 in South Shields, the Zetland life boat is the oldest surviving boat of its kind in the world. The Zetland is a clinker-built, doubled-ended rowing boat, 9.15m long with a 3.1m beam. She required 13 crew members, although she could carry 20 in severe weather.   The Zetland Lifeboat saved over 500 lives during its long service, of over 60 years, along the coast of Redcar.

Whilst the Zetland must have taken part in many remarkable and daring rescues, the most well documented took place in 1854.  The story goes that the boat Jane Erskine ran aground during bad weather.  Fishermen agreed to help refloat her, but became trapped when weather worsened.  The Zetland crew were called out to save the stranded fishermen and Jane Erskine crew.  The team saved all 52 people involved.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution retired the Zetland in 1864 following damage during a rescue, replacing her with the Crossley boat.  Following lifeboat service, the boat was repaired and returned to Redcar.  The Zetland then had a number of different uses that sadly weren’t recorded, including a fishing boat.  Eventually, it was left unused.  A permanent home needed to be found for the Zetland.  In 1907, a vacant boathouse was found – known as the Emma Boathouse, named after a local philanthropist who had helped the local area fund vital lifesaving equipment. The Zetland has been housed here ever since, in this now Grade II listed building, for future generations to enjoy.

Restoring an iconic boat

After spending over 100 years within its museum, the dedicated team of volunteers have decided to completely restore the boat to its original self.  This journey began in 2017 with preliminary ideas and suggestions discussed.  At the end of the 2018 tourism season, the Zetland museum closed its doors to the public, and the huge job of restoration began.

Initially the Zetland team felt that soda blasting the entire boat was required.  They wanted to strip the woodwork right back to see exactly what areas required the most attention.  Information they’d found suggested that soda would be the most effective method to complete this task, as it is the least abrasive system to use.  Following discussions with Kylie in our office, the Zetland team were happy for SBL to visit the boat and complete some test patches on the 200 year old oak planks.  It also allowed a check to see whether certain sections of the boat were made of softer wood.

Arriving in Redcar

In November 2018, James visited the Zetland in its temporary home – more in land than usual, in a purpose-provided industrial unit.  He was able to complete tests on the boat, confirming that soda would not be the best system to clean the multiple layers of paint from the 18th Century lifeboat.  Instead, crushed glass projected at a low pressure provided a much better finish – exposing the wood, removing the paint and exposing the areas of concern (which had been coated with filler to hide the issues).

Completing tests on the Zetland Lifeboat

Work was booked in and half of our team spent a week in Redcar, meticulously working on the beautiful – and most definitely irreplaceable – Zetland Life Boat.  The decision was made that we would clean the planks, keel and airboxes of the boat – so the entire exterior.  The slatted seats and interior would be either left ‘as is’ or sanded down by hand where necessary.  The planks and airboxes were cleaned over the first four days.


The keel was cleaned on the final day, as the boat had to be raised into the air, to make the keel safe to reach and work on – this took quite a while as you can imagine! We were then able to complete the final areas of cleaning for the Zetland Lifeboat Team.

Following blast cleaning work, repairs began on the exterior of the boat – fixing the holes that had been quietly getting worse whilst hidden below the multitude of paint layers.

The future of the Zetland Lifeboat

Plans are for the biggest restoration of the boat to be completed by Easter 2019.  Ideally, the museum would like all work finished so that the boat can be returned to its museum ready for tourists to enjoy its splendour for many, many years to come.  There is lots of information, including updates on the conservation, on the Zetland’s website here – We will definitely making the trip to see the finished restoration in the near future!

Blast cleaned Zetland Lifeboat