Photographic exhibition brings RNLI's perilous work to life

THE seas are rolling. You’re trying to stand still, to keep the horizons level, the camera dry, the lens in focus and to hold on.

Photographic exhibition brings RNLI's perilous work to life

Shooting photos from the heaving deck of a lifeboat is challenging, but Nigel Millard captured the drama, the breaking waves and — in rough waters — the splash of orange that is an RNLI lifeboat. He accepted a commission to shoot photos for Dr Huw Lewis-Jones’s new book, The Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts, celebrating the RNLI.

Four hundred of his photos are in the book, published by Conway, and 51 of them — six taken in Ireland — feature in an outdoor exhibition that runs in Dublin’s Grand Canal Square until Dec 2.

An advertising and design photographer, Millard has been taking RNLI photos since 2005. In 2008, he was asked to join his local station, Torbay in Devon as a volunteer crew-member. When, in 2010, he got the commission for Lewis-Jones’s book, Millard gave up his other work to commit to photographing the scope of the RNLI’s lifesaving work.

Neville Murphy, volunteer lifeboat crew member, at Dunmore East, is lowered by winch from Irish Coast Guard helicopter

The RNLI is a vast, extended family. It operates 237 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland — 44 are here. An inshore lifeboat is trialling in Lough Ree, Co Westmeath, and another is due to start trials in Union Hall, West Cork, next year. Last year saw 955 lifeboat launches here – 398 in darkness – and 1,057 people were rescued. We have 1,500 crew-members, 500 shore crew and station management, and 2,000 fundraisers in Ireland — all volunteers and Millard wanted to capture the full range of this family.

“The brief I set myself was to photograph crew on a wild winter’s night, going out to sea, right through to fundraising in landlocked cities in the heart of the country,” he says.

Of the 118 lifeboat stations he visited, 26 were in Ireland. At each station, he carried a pager and was alerted to call-outs, along with local crew, to capture the action first-hand. In the heavy swells, two to three miles off Hook Head, where he went on a rough-weather exercise with Kilmore Quay and Rosslare Lifeboats, he took two of the photos that feature in the exhibition — ‘Breaking Seas’ and ‘Spray and Swells’. “It’s difficult to capture a big sea. The only way you see a wave is if you’re at the bottom of it and it’s breaking above you.”

The Baltimore lifeboat arrives on scene, with not a moment to spare. The crew of the Rambler 100 hi-tech racing yacht had been thrown into the sea during the Rolex Fastnet Race, 2011. All were saved.

For ‘Life on the Wire’, he stood in the cargo door of the Waterford-based Irish Coastguard helicopter, Rescue 117, and photographed winch-man Neville Murphy — a lifeboat volunteer in Dunmore East — being lowered onto a cliff over breaking seas. He was in Co Down for ‘Newcastle – Emerald Light’. It shows the head-launcher just about to release a lifeboat from its trailer, into the sea.

One of Millard’s favourite photos is ‘Calm before the Storm,’ a shot taken in Achill Island’s crew room. “I saw the crew’s kit all hanging up — all the boots were different sizes. It was lit from the side by a window. I thought ‘no matter how tired everybody is, we come back after a shout and we hang up everything.’ It sums up the care and attention the crew takes.”

Another favourite is ‘A Proud Chest,’ a headless shot of a fundraiser. “It shows his chest with yellow jacket and lots of RNLI badges. I wanted to get images from the coast to the cities. This was taken in Birmingham, as far from the sea as you can get.” The photo speaks to every RNLI fundraiser, without whom the charity couldn’t save lives at sea. Independent of the Coast Guard and separate from the Government, 92% of RNLI’s income comes from donations. Other income is from legacies, investment, merchandising and life-guarding. All funds raised in Ireland stay here — €2.2m was raised in 2012. Millard got his one-in-a-million photo — included in the exhibition — when the racing yacht, Rambler 100, capsized off the Fastnet, during the August 2011 Fastnet Race. Its keel had broken.

Foul-weather gear, ready and waiting, at the RNLI station at Achill Island.

Sixteen crew were rescued off the upturned hull — a further five were later rescued from the water. “The chances of a £15m yacht capsizing with 20-odd crew were pretty slim. They were leading the race, in a state-of-the-art yacht. I’d been out hundreds of times on exercise and there had been no mayday calls. It was sheer chance it happened while I was on board,” Millard says.

Kieran Cotter, coxswain of Baltimore Lifeboat, says it was a fresh day, gusting 25 to 27 knots. Visibility was poor. “The idea was Nigel would get some good photos of those big yachts going around the Fastnet. We wanted to see the Rambler 100 round the Fastnet. But we were late going out and we missed her.

“At around 6.45pm, we received information from Valentia Coastguard that a personal bleeper had been activated about four and a half miles south west of the Fastnet. We proceeded to the area and began a search, but we couldn’t see anything. A crew-member noticed a light in the distance and we went to investigate.”

For Millard, it was “amazing” to “come out of the mist and murk and breaking seas and to see a boat capsized like that”. Two hundred metres away, he “just snapped” as the lifeboat approached the stricken yacht. “As we established with [the 16 crew] what we were going to do, I continued taking photos.”

In his years photographing RNLI activity, Millard had gone from being a photographer out on a lifeboat to being a crewman with a camera. “Each time one of the 16 was brought on board, I’d stop taking photos and make sure they were ok. My primary role is to administer first aid, to work as part of the crew. Sometimes, we go to sea and we’re on a rescue and the camera doesn’t come out of the bag.

For me, it’s about documenting what the volunteer crews do, not about sensationalising what happens to survivors and casualties,” he says. For Millard, ‘To the Rescue Baltimore’ captures some of the best elements of RNLI. “It shows the teamwork and training — the skill of the coxswain in manoeuvring the lifeboat close to the upturned hull without putting life in danger, the crew who instinctively knew what the coxswain wanted, all working as one big team. That, ultimately, is what we sign up for.”

* Over the course of seven months, the exhibition will run in locations including London, Southampton, Manchester, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Birmingham. An online version is on

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