The Launch : A Reccy
|"Bright Orange Light" Holyhead - Prints available HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
The night before I checked my gear, on the morning I checked my gear, from camera rain covers, spare batteries, cleaning cloths, spare discs and of course digging out my hardly used Musto MPX foul-weather gear, bought for all those big coastal voyages I was going to make but never did, following my Day Skipper ticket at Plas Menai! The dull yellow kit smelt somewhat musty from the base of the wardrobe but shaking them out they instantly evoked vivid dreams of sea, yachts and aspirations. Today I was heading for Holyhead, not for a sail across to Ireland or the Isle of Man, but to join the Holyhead RNLI and Head Launcher, Ray Steadman, for an introduction to the lifeboat crew of the RNLB Christopher Pearce, before joining them aboard for a two hour exercise around the coast, taking in South Stack, North Stack and Porth Dafarch.
|"Ray Steadman" Head Launcher & Press Officer|
Strangely, I felt gentle waves of intimidation, not about the boat or the sea, but about the project itself and equally the lifeboatmen ! I'd only briefly met one or two of the crew before, but these are guys who brave the fiercest elements, the most nightmarish conditions and seas the size of houses. They might battle for hours at night alongside towering monsters of cargo ships whilst being tossed about like little yellow ducks in a kids bathtub, and just as comparatively could end up turning turtle in the blackness. These guys should be giants, Gods, the most Alpha of all Alpha males and they put their own lives on the line for others, for nothing but the reward of saving the lives of those in danger. Well that was my myth anyway! When I arrived, a relaxed bunch of guys of all ages were standing outside the Dog House enjoying the Spring sunshine, chatting away, one smoking a rollie, others laughing & joking but all generally laid back when then, breaking my preconceptions even further, appeared an attractive slip of a woman who hardly out of her teens, strode confidently in full protective gear and crash helmet, alongside a pack of male crew towards the inshore lifeboat - it was like a scene from a movie !
|"Holyhead Lifeboat Project Launch" - Prints available HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
I thought I'd be a curiosity, an inconvenience, an intrusion - but I was wrong (I hope!) they were all very welcoming, possibly following a glowing 'big up' from Ray before I'd even arrived :-) "Some bad news and some good news" smiled Ray, the Severn Class lifeboat is out of action waiting for a replacement pipe but we have the Trent Class which is nearly as big, so the exercise can go ahead and you won't have had a wasted journey. He was right, on all counts, 14-24, the Trent Class, RNLB Dora Fraser McDougall was still an impressive looking craft, definitely smaller than the RNLB Christopher Pearce but shipshape and Bristol Fashion. I was given a safety briefing by one of the crew and otherwise firefighter called Craig, which basically meant always having one hand attached to the boat when under full speed as the 'twitching' of the stern over the waves could send me drinking brine about a mile behind the boat before anyone had even noticed. On my return journey later on I could believe it, and all of the shots over the gunwales were taken one handed!
|"Light Clouds" South Stack - Prints HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
This was a trial run for me, a reccy if you like, for at this point I still haven't decided how the project will develop or where it's going. I like this open ended, time unlimited, non briefed blank canvas. I am under no pressure and I don't have to fulfill anyone else's expectations or demands. I was asked to be effectively, an 'artist in residence', but working from a lifeboat rather than a venue. Ray is a big fan of my artwork and a supportive follower, he simply wants to provide me with an opportunity to produce work in a new arena, and I am extremely grateful for this long term project opportunity. I have since identified some clear aspects of this maritime activity which I'd like to explore further, and after this initial trip I can already see some potential themes appear.
|"Sea the Light" South Stack - Prints HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
One of the first issues which I'd anticipated but couldn't change, was morning light. These massive, predominantly North West facing cliffs of South Stack were looking dark and unforgiving even though the sea just off shore was sunlit and sparkling. This was the first time I'd seen these amazing geologically distorted features from this angle and I was really taken aback by the sheer numbers of caves and gullies which are invisible from the cliff tops. The coxswain, Tony, was deliberately going slowly for me I think, so that I could take in these huge landscape structures. In one way I wish I didn't take a camera at all on this first trip, as looking through a viewfinder removes one to a large extent from reality. I wanted to simply be in awe, to consider the rocky depths below the boat, the precarious Trinity House buildings of North and South Stack and even to be mesmerised by the sheer numbers of sea birds on even shearer cliffs !
|"Wake Up Call" South Stack - Prints HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
The steps down to South Stack lighthouse, which seem to take forever to count on the way down, and guarantee cardiovascular overload on the way up, seemed like tiny matchsticks against the rocky backdrop. Suddenly we stopped as there was a fire on board and the crew had to ascertain where it was coming from and extinguish it. This was not a real fire of course - just a drill, and whilst they blanketed flames and checked all the vents, flaps and pipes I was fascinated by the clouds above and the shimmering Irish Sea below. The fire safely dealt with, we proceeded further South towards lower cliffs and bigger inlets and eventually we nosed the bow into the tiny rocky channel of Porth Ruffydd. For years our family have enjoyed this secluded little cove with it's strange set of broken steps but it was only today that I discovered it was once the site of an original lifeboat house back in the 19th Century, from where the lifeboat would have battled out into the prevailing winds and tide using a combination of oars and sail. Standing in the modern electronic & digital instrument paneled flying bridge of the Trent Class, with it's self righting capability and water tight cabins below, it was a striking image of the huge differences between what the lifeboatmen of yesteryear had to work with compared with modern lifeboat crews. I bet it doesn't stop the fear of the huge seas, the darkness and the image of frightened souls on a flailing vessel, but the sheer technology of modern craft must offer some re-assurance ? I will be asking these questions of the crew over the coming months.
|"Power to Save" Irish Sea - Prints available HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
One more exercise later and Coxswain Tony pushed the throttle forward and we took off like a plane! The wake, which at first resembled a boiling cauldron just aft of the stern soon became plumes of perfectly formed churned water in four distinct ridges dissipating towards the horizon. I huddled down in the stern, wedging my Wellied feet on either side of the towing access in the transom, to shoot just above the exhausts, but the spray eddied inboard even at this speed, covering my filter in a salty coat within seconds rather than minutes. As soon as I cleaned the filter it was covered again. My core stability is very good, after years of practice working for yachting magazines. I could stand easily enough on the aft deck at this speed but the earlier warning of the 'stern twitch' was lodged in my head and I really didn't fancy seeing South Stack from below than sea level, so I held onto the grab rails anyway and did my best to compose, anticipate and shoot as bounce, waves, background and clouds snapped into alignment. I've shot from many different types of craft from one design day-boats, old gaffers, Bristol Pilot Cutters, Falmouth Working Boats, Hunters, GK24s, Dorys, Ribs and speedboats, but Dora Fraser McDougall was something else and I gather she has nothing on the speed of RNLB Christopher Pearce, so I am eager to experience the difference !
|"The Wake No.1" Irish Sea - Prints available HERE - 3% to Holyhead RNLI|
In a way this was almost a jolly for me today, a chance to say hello to crew, to get a sense of the first half of the Holyhead Lifeboat operational zone and to simply try and work out what I might attempt whilst aboard a professional craft at work, rather than one there just at my disposal. I know it sounds crazy but I am looking forward to some bigger seas and heavy weather, but it will introduce numerous other technical, creative, practical and safety issues. I am also aware that shooting in those conditions may well be hampered by potential nausea and sea sickness! As we entered the harbour I took just a couple of frames of the guys themselves, but this is a subject area for another trip. I can see myself using each trip to prioritise on specifics, rather than trying to shoot everything each time.
|"Hefin on Navigation" Aboard the Trent Class RNLB, Dora Fraser McDougall|
What is most exciting for me is actually escaping the oversubscribed genre of shore-based landscape photography for a time, and dealing with subject matter that is both challenging and different -worthy even! I am LOVING being back on the sea and I find myself rapidly drifting back to boating summers and my early professional years as a yachting photographer for the likes of Classic Boat, Yachting World, Yachting Monthly and so on. I miss boats, yachts and maritime subjects just as much as the sea itself. This is a nice catalyst between distant memories and tomorrows potential.
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