David Stogdon: Lifeboat designer who persuaded the RNLI to use inflatable craft

David Stogdon spent much of his post-war life proving the unique seakeeping and life-saving qualities of boats whose buoyancy is derived entirely or partly from a compartmentalised air-filled tube. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution's 160-strong inshore fleet of inflatable and rigid inflatable lifeboats descends directly from his pioneering design work in the 1960s and 1970s and the much larger (11-19-metre) ocean-going rigid inflatables of the Dutch lifeboat service, the KNRM, are also of his conception.

The son and grandson of Harrow School housemasters, David Stogdon developed an early penchant for adventure in small boats, fearlessly rowing out alone from Frinton Beach as a young boy on family holidays until only the church spires were visible. Later, as a teenager, he sailed a 12ft dinghy from Fowey to Falmouth and quickly developed a strong sense of self-reliance in the open sea. By the time he had finished his war service in the Navy, he reckoned to be able to negotiate any harbour approach without the need of a chart.

Stogdon was navigating and antisubmarine control officer aboard the destroyer HMS Brazen when, on 22 July 1940, her back was broken by Stuka bombs off Dover. Before she went down, Stogdon, manning the only gun still in operation, destroyed three of the bombers. He was mentioned in dispatches for this and again for his part as a gunnery officer in disabling a U-boat aboard another destroyer, HMS Tynedale, during the commando raid on St Nazaire in March 1942.

While the entire ship's company of HMS Brazen survived her sinking, when HMS Tynedale was torpedoed in December 1943 off the Algerian coast, soon after he had been posted elsewhere, 73 of Stogdon's old shipmates lost their lives.

In 1952 he began his long career in the pursuit of saving lives at sea by joining the RNLI as inspector of lifeboats for Scotland. In those days of plodding eight-knot lifeboats, not all of which would right themselves after capsize, tragedies were more frequent. Stogdon had to deal with the consequences of two in quick succession in 1953, one at Fraserburgh and the other Arbroath. In both cases, all but one of the crew were lost when their lifeboat turned turtle attempting to regain harbour after a call-out.

Above all, Stogdon was a free and original thinker and when he was moved south to take care of all the stations from the Humber to Portland Bill, including the Channel Islands, he realised that the lifeboat fleet was in need of more speed and manoeuvrability, especially to cope with the growing number of recreational emergencies close to shore.

Stogdon had long admired the extraordinary feat of the Frenchman Dr Alain Bombard, who, in 1952, chose to prove both a human's ability to survive and the seaworthiness of an inflatable by crossing the Atlantic in a sail-driven Zodiac with nothing but seawater and fish caught en voyage to sustain him. Stogdon was also aware that the French had begun to use inflatables as rescue boats off Brittany's beaches and had seen at first-hand the Jersey fire service using one to good effect for coastal emergencies.

A self-effacing man, and apparently bumbling to those who did not know him, Stogdon sensed how difficult he would find it to persuade his seniors that a flimsy neoprene fabric craft, driven by a single 25hp outboard, was enough to safeguard lifeboat crews when oak, teak and mahogany had been the only acceptable building materials to date.

Eventually, however, his enthusiasm began to rub off on some key individuals, including the RNLI's deputy chief inspector, Captain Tony Wicksteed, one time first officer of the liner Queen Mary. After he persuaded Wicksteed to attend a trial off Walmer in Kent where the inflatable bounced its way in a great arc round the entire Polish fishing fleet which was sheltering from a strong north-easterly wind, Stogdon's idea took root and the first RNLI inflatable was sent on station duty at Aberystwyth in 1963.

Fully aware now of Stogdon's inventive insight, the RNLI put him in charge of its yard at Cowes where inflatable lifeboats were fitted out. It was here, taking Admiral Desmond Hoare's original concept of an inflatable tube or sponson attached to a rigid hull, that Stogdon developed the Atlantic 21 lifeboat. His innovations, which included a righting bag and inversion-proof engines, presented the RNLI in 1972 with a supremely seaworthy boat, capable of nearly 30 knots and which could even continue on service after capsize.

His retirement in 1980 coincided with the RNLI's trials and ultimate rejection of his Medina prototype, a 35ft version of a rigid inflatable lifeboat. The main concern at the time was mistrust in the means of propulsion. However, this did not deter the Dutch lifeboat service who saw a water-jet driven version of the Medina ideally suited to the shallow, sandy conditions of their coastline. Gratefully accepting Stogdon into their design team, they were able to develop the first large rigid inflatable boat (rib) to be used as an all-weather lifeboat. She was named Koningin Beatrix and launched by the Dutch monarch in 1984. Stogdon, who went to sea during many of the trials, would observe one attribute over and above the boat's obvious speed, agility and seakeeping, and that was the way her sponsons absorbed the impact of the waves, calming the sea around her and making rescue that much easier.

Today, every Dutch station operates a lifeboat derived from Stogdon's designs and there are many countries worldwide who are equipped with similar rescue vessels.

Edward Wake-Walker

Edgar David Stogdon, lifeboat designer: born Aldenham, Hertfordshire 1 January 1919; MBE 1977; married 1948 Dorothea Haviland (two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died 1 February 2008.