The rescue at sea: a very old history


The generous gesture of the rescue at sea goes back to millenia. The first hard copies of rescue come from the Roman law which in fact an obligation. Later, Louis XIV, by an ordinance of 1681, recommended always to help whoever being in danger to drown. With the development of the European Navy as from the 15th century, many examples of rescues with limited sometimes ridiculous resources, took place. But the dangers at sea then are part of the daily of the families of the littoral and from the hundreds of sailors disappear each year in the approaches from Europe. It however was necessary to expect the end of the 19th century (new rise of the Navy with the appearance of machines, instead of sails and oars, for the propulsion) to see the creation of an organized rescue. It is in Europe (England and France) that the first stations of rescue equipped with boats designed settled for this purpose.

First lifeboats

The first boat to deserve to be called lifeboat (9 meters length) was built in England in 1790. Barded cork, this boat is insubmersible, it was called the “Original” and was destroyed at the time of a large storm in 1830. Its great defect was not to have system of instantaneous draining of embarked sea water. However such a process had been developed in 1775 by French Mr. de Besnières then civil engineer. The first operational boat is finally installed, in the United Kingdom, with the Isle of Man in 1802. The first French boat, copied from the British model, is commissioned in Boulogne in 1834.

Birth of the salvage companies

At the beginning of the 19th century, taking into account the dramas of the sea increasingly frequent and expensive in human lives, the idea to organize the rescue is finally allowed by the maritime community. A first step in London is carried out with the “National Institution for the safeguarding of lifes from shipwrech”. A little later in 1825, a salvage company is created, in France in Boulogne, but without continuation.Lifeguards Around 1850, there were in France 7 lifeboats in service, including one in Audierne, but without outside assistance and having ridiculous and limited means. On February 12th, 1865, the French State created finally the Central Company of Rescue of the Shipwrecked men (SCSN) whose 1st president is the admiral Rigault de Genouilly. The empress Eugenie, like benefactor, helps the company by offering two of the first boats. Let us note that the first decorated crew was, in 1866, that of Audierne which received in reward a medal bearing the effigy of the empress Eugenie.

Installation of the first stations

Audierne is one of the first 4 stations created by 1865 with Barfleur, Saint-Malo and Midsummer's Day de Luz. The choice of Audierne as one of the very first stations was receipt at the time of the first visit of the inspector of the new company. Indeed the very active port then (fishing and coastal traffic) has a very dangereous access because of strong gale of South-west because of the formation of a bar (breaking waves) to the entry. The boat of Audierne, as of its commissioning, will be, with each strong gale, preposition close to this bar and will thus save during decades of many human lives.
In 1866, it was then the creation of the stations of Center, Ushant, Groix, Roscoff. In 1867, 16 stations are in service of which, in Brittany: Etel, Conquet, the River mouth-Wrach and Perros-Guirrec. In our vicinity it was Kérity and Douarnenez in 1868 in 1875.

A second salvage company in 1873

A few years later, in 1873, the lawyer Nadault de Buffon founds in Rennes a charitable organization the “Hospital Rescuers Breton” (HSB). This company is intended to help the families of perished at sea and to improve the living conditions of the sailors. The rescue at sea is also one of its missions and it will help the SCSN thus. In 1945, 2 companies SCSN and HSB are distributed the stations, to rebuild for the majority. Audierne will then be taken charges some by the HSB and will give, in 1951, with its first boat motorized the name of Nadault de Buffon in tribute to this voluntary founder and patron. From 1873 to 1967, the HSB assisted 2,600 ships and saved 20,000 human lives.

Creation of the stations

The two salvage companies are confronted with an immense spot:
- to set up legal bases
- to collect government stocks and patrons
- to improve the rare existing stations and to build news
- to design and build the most adapted boats.
LifeguardsThe inventory of fixtures of the French littoral in 1867 envisages a need for fifty stations besides ten then existing. The rescuers at this time, with the participation of the Highways Departments, it is a question of building adapted shelters (dimensions, bases, slope…) for the boat and its carriage with a hold of setting to water in the vicinity.

Evolution of the boats and the equipment since 1865

In 1868, the first lifeboats have the last techniques innovating for the time:
- they are insubmersible thanks to boxes of air which maintain its buoyancy even after a sea water entry;
- in the event of upsetting they are rectified all alone;
- the exhaustion of entered sea water on board is done by vertical wells provided with automatic soups;
- initially only operated by oars, it is quickly provided with 2 chechmates with sails.


The length of the boats is about 10 meters. It is starting from 1918 that they (high cost) will be gradually been driven by engines which remain then an average auxiliary, oars and veils remaining more used. War 1939/45 destroyed most installations of rescue which should be rebuilt. The first boat with 2 engines delivered in 1946 to the station of Goury/La Hague is called “Victoire of the allies”. In 1950 eight new boats are in place and in 1951 the “Nadault de Buffon” is delivered to Audierne.

The last boat with oar will be withdrawn from the service in 1962. The modern boats are thus faster and very operating but the crew remains always very exposed with the sea. The progressive installation of the electronic material (radio, radar, sounder…) oblige to design tight cabins to protect the material what also benefits the marine rescuers. The hulls are from now on out of composite matter (glass and resin). These boats, very “marine”, are well adapted to the present needs (to go quickly and far by all times). Until the years the 1960 rescuers intervened exclusively with the help of the professionals (fishing or trade) bringing comfort, heat and hot drinks to them… From now on the interventions are to 80% with the profit of the yachtmen malformed and unconscious of the dangers of the maritime medium. These shipwrecked men of modern times are thus often collected in state of shock and of hypothermia. The rescuers must thus today be formed on the psychological assistance, first aid and the reanimation. The modern boats, to meet these needs, have capacity of adequate reception (people lying and material of assistance).

Fusion of the two salvage companies in 1967
In 1967 two companies HSB and SCSN amalgamate to become the National company of rescue at sea, the SNSM whose first president is the admiral Amman (current name of the lifeboat of Audierne).

Copyright Musée Maritime du Cap-Sizun-EN 2012-Création :