The B class inshore lifeboat is one of the fastest in the RNLI fleet. There are two Atlantic 85 lifeboats in Jersey.
Following a service in 1967 by St. Helier Lifeboat, two members of St. Helier Lifeboat crew, Gerald Baudains and Gordon Coom, organised a collection to pay for an RNLI Inshore Rescue Boat to be stationed at St. Helier. The boat, which arrived in August 1968, was at first kept in the old Lifeboat House at St. Helier, but it was soon decided that, as St. Helier was already covered by fast vessels, she would serve a more useful purpose if stationed in the north of the Island. On October 7th, 1969, she was transferred to a permanent station at St. Catherine, which was situated on the north side of Gibraltar rock at the landward end of the breakwater.
The "D" class inflatable Lifeboat, which had a single engine, was operational in summer months only, and was launched by the crew pushing the boat down the nearby slipway on a trailer.
In 1983, sea trials were carried out with a larger inflatable Lifeboat, a 17.5ft twin engine, "C" class. As a result of the success of these trials a new "C" class Lifeboat "Sebag of Jersey" was located in a purpose-built station alongside the sailing club at St. Catherine in April 1984.
The "C" class boat had 24 hours a day, all year round operating capabilities, and during her time at St. Catherine's, between 1984 and 1990, was launched on 111 services.
During a service in October 1985, the Lifeboat was damaged during a search of the rocks off La Rocque in thick fog. Whilst repairs were being effected by the RNLI in Cowes, a relief "D" class Lifeboat was once again stationed at St. Catherine.
The operational range of the St. Catherine's Lifeboat has not been restricted to the east coast of Jersey. Services have taken the Lifeboat across to the French coast on many occasions including a five hour long service to tow a boat back from just off Le Senequet, 20 miles south east of the station.
It was the extended range and duration of services carried out that prompted the RNLI in 1989, to carry out sea trials with a new class of Lifeboat. In October 1990, an "Atlantic 21" was stationed in a new larger boathouse built near the Martello tower in St. Catherine's Bay. Initially the relief fleet boat "Lions International" was based at the new station until October 1991, when the station's own Lifeboat, "Jessie Eliza" came into service.
The Atlantic 21 was developed by the RNLI in conjunction with staff at Atlantic College in the late 1960's and proved to be an economic method of handling rescue work requiring a fast launch and passage to a casualty along with the ability to work close to rocks, or in shallow waters. The Lifeboat, which is 21 feet in length, is a rigid inflatable, the hull being made of glass reinforced plastic surmounted by an inflated sponson. The crew of three is seated on a central console unit, which contains VHF radio, compass, a GPS navigation system, controls, and other equipment.
In the event of capsize, a crew member activates a gas bottle which rapidly inflates a bag on the roll-bar assembly above the engines. Within a few seconds the boat rolls upright and the engines, which are immersion proof, can be re-started. In 1996, the twin engines on "Jessie Eliza" were replaced with more powerful 70 h.p. engines, enabling speeds of up to 34 knots. Les Ecrehous reef could now be reached in just 12 minutes from launching and Grosnez, on the extreme north west of Jersey, in under half and hour.
One of the more memorable rescues carried out in "Jessie Eliza" was of a surfer on New Year's Day in 1994. By that evening the wind had picked up to a force 7 - gale force 8. The Lifeboat launched at 21.36 into a sea of white water. The conditions were so bad that during the launch the whole launching rig, comprising tractor, trailer and Lifeboat was pushed up the beach by the breaking surf. The 12-mile passage to Plemont was hampered by the heavy, confused seas, strong winds, violent rain and hail showers that reduced the visibility to less than 20 metres. They finally arrived on scene one hour later and eventually located the surfer after hearing his cries for help. Having pulled him from the sea at 22.50, it emerged that there was another person in the water in the area. After landing the first surfer on the beach at Grève de Lecq the Lifeboat returned to the scene, searching out beyond L'Etacq along with the St. Helier Lifeboat, before being recalled at 01.30.
The Lifeboat returned to the scene with a fresh crew at first light, 07.30. The search was called off after the vessel "Ronez" found the second surfer, alive and well, clinging to his board in St. Aubin's Bay on the south side of the Island. He had managed to survive for over 16 hours in the water in atrocious conditions. In recognition of the courage of the crew that night, Senior Helmsman Nigel Sweeny was awarded "The Thanks of the Institution Inscribed on Vellum" and the two crew members, Paul Richardson and John Heyes, were presented with framed "Letters of Appreciation". These awards were presented by HRH The Duchess of Kent. The same crew members were also presented with the Walter and Elizabeth Groombridge Award for the most meritorious service performed by the crew of an Atlantic 21 that year.
On Easter Monday, 1995, the Lifeboat assisted in the rescue of 300 passengers from the crippled ferry "St. Malo", after she struck rocks off Corbière.
The longest service the Lifeboat has carried out was in March 1996 at the end of a busy weekend. There had been a service on the Saturday afternoon followed by an engine change and a major pre-arranged exercise the next morning. The Lifeboat was launched at 21.35 on the Sunday evening to search for an overdue fishing vessel after two crew changes and refuelling stops and 19 hours of service the Lifeboat arrived back on station at 20.30 on Monday, sadly only wreckage was found.
On 2nd March 2000 at 10am the station relief Lifeboat "The Institute of London Underwriters" launched to the assistance of the sailing vessel "Maeve", with two crew on board, which had suffered steering failure on passage from St Malo to Southampton, approximately 10 miles north of the Lifeboat station, in force 6 winds and 10 foot seas. A tow was established after attempts to place a Lifeboat crew member on board had failed due to the sea conditions. The decision was made to tow the casualty vessel to Carteret as this was the closest port and would minimise the risks of capsize in the deteriorating weather. During the passage to Carteret the towline parted, and on this occasion a Lifeboat crew member was safely transferred onto the casualty to assist with a seasick crew member. At 1245 the Lifeboat arrived off Carteret and the Lifeboat crew assisted the crew of the casualty to anchor in order to wait for the tide to rise and gain access to the port of Carteret. The seasick crew member was transferred to the Lifeboat and, when there was sufficient water to clear the sand bar, the Lifeboat was able to enter the estuary through the surf line. The seasick crew member was transferred to a waiting ambulance and the Lifeboat returned to sea to standby the casualty vessel and await the arrival of the larger Carteret Lifeboat to undertake the tow into port. The yacht "Maeve" with the skipper and two Lifeboat crew aboard was towed into Carteret harbour at 1445 by the Carteret Lifeboat. Due to worsening weather conditions the Lifeboat was forced to remain in Carteret until the following day. Helmsman Paul Richardson, and crew members Andrew Eeles and Lloyd Banks were presented with framed Letters of Appreciation for their part in the rescue of the yacht "Maeve" and its two crew members.
A Relief Atlantic 75 was placed on station in October 2000 and Jessie Eliza was seconded to the Dutch Lifeboat Service for evaluation trials.
In March 2001 the station received its own Atlantic 75, "Eric Rowse" (B772).
On the 27th July 2003 whilst the crew were tidying the station up after Open Day the Lifeboat was paged to go to the assistance of a boat which was reported to have sunk off Rozel. The Lifeboat was quickly launched and arrived at the scene within a few minutes. A man was recovered from the water and immediately resuscitation efforts were made whilst the Lifeboat proceeded to Rozel. A shore crew met the lifeboat and continued resuscitation whilst the Lifeboat returned to the area. A second man was recovered from the water and similarly taken to Rozel and waiting Paramedics. Unfortunately both men were pronounced dead at by hospital doctors. A letter of Thanks was presented to each of the Crew involved; Helmsman Bruce Ferguson, Helmsman Andrew Eeles, Helmsman Simon Boyle and Helmsman Robin Fitzgerald.
In June 2010, the existing Atlantic 75 was replaced with a new Atlantic 85, to be named Eric W Wilson (B-841).
The Atlantic 85 offers several key advantages to its predecessor. It is slightly longer and wider and allows for a fourth crew member, which will particularly important for rescues involving searches and medical evacuations. It is also faster and has a wider range of equipment installed, including a radar and VHF direction finder as well as the GPS and VHF radio which are also found on the Atlantic 75. There is also an inter-crew intercom system to allow for more effective communication in poor weather and when travelling at speed.The first woman crew member joined the crew on active service in June 1995. On standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the crew are called by a pager system and are prepared to respond immediately to ensure that the Lifeboat is launched as quickly as possible, which, is normally within 10 minutes.
The Atlantic class Lifeboats have proved to be a fast and versatile means of enabling the RNLI crew members to provide assistance to vessels, divers, swimmers, surfers and many others in difficulty in the waters around Jersey and along the adjacent French coast. The St Catherine's Lifeboat probably has a greater average distance to callouts than any other Atlantic Lifeboat; with frequent callouts to the adjacent French coast and as far as the Island of Sark to the north on at least two occasions.