Behind the scenes with RNLI photographer Nigel Millard
May 27, 2020
‘The first time I witnessed a lifeboat being launched was into a raging sea in winter. The sky was black/brown caused by a mist of sand thrown up by the howling wind. Hoylake Lifeboat was heading across a mile of beach out to sea. As it crawled across the sand, it was surrounded by splashes of red and orange – the shore crew who aided the launch. It was at this point I was hooked…’
Nigel’s day job is that of Photographer and Director – he also hosts Photography workshops.
He has a roving brief to document the RNLI for 5 days each month – the imagery being used across all media by the RNLI for fundraising and awareness. As operational crew, he works with Lifeboat crews across the RNLI and has also completed additional training enabling him to fly with the Irish Coastguard (IRCG) Helicopters to document the lifesaving teamwork of both organisations across the Island of Ireland.
In 2005, he commenced a personal project on the RNLI – based at Torbay, his local station. He wanted to capture the essence of the RNLI. Initially, spending 2 or 3 days each week at the station photographing the watching, the waiting, the training and the shouts. He then also visited lifeboat stations around the country whilst on other photographic commissions. At first, he was a photographer that would help out. When he was asked to join Torbay Lifeboat crew, he became a crewman with a camera. ‘The most important thing is to know when to pick up the camera and when to leave it in the bag…’
‘There have been several memorable shouts, a couple with Torbay Lifeboat, one in really dense fog and another to two unconscious divers. Back in 2011, Nigel joined Baltimore Lifeboat crew to document their work during the Fastnet Race. The lifeboat was out on exercise when they received a tasking from Valentia Coastguard Radio to investigate an EPIRB. “We searched and found nothing, but the EPIRB had been traced to a crewman on the Rambler 100, a state of the art super maxi yacht with a crew of 21. The boat and all her crew had disappeared off the radar.”
A MAYDAY was issued by the IRCG so we commenced a search along with rescue helicopters from Waterford & Shannon, lifeboats from flanking stations and numerous other vessels. Conditions were deteriorating fast, day was turning into night and gale force winds whipped up the sea making searching very difficult. You get very wet onboard a Tyne class Lifeboat…
‘After 30 minutes, we saw a flashing light on the horizon. On arrival, we discovered 16 crew calmly huddled together on the up-turned hull. Rambler 100 had capsized in 30 seconds doing 29kts – her Canting keel had sheared off. It was at this moment that we were told that an additional 5 crew were missing. We deployed the ‘x’ boat (a small inflatable craft carried on the lifeboat) and used it to get the crew off the hull and onto the lifeboat one at a time. I was tasked with casualty care of the survivors and would pick up the camera when I had an opportunity.
‘We returned to Baltimore’s harbour around 10pm, the survivors were put ashore and we rehoused the lifeboat. The whole community had come out to help the stricken yacht crew, bringing clothing, food and finding them places to stay which was really humbling to witness.
‘Over the years, I’ve been privileged to witness this first hand – from launching down the slipway onboard St David’s Lifeboat at midnight on a shout to standing with the fundraisers in the rain on a Thursday afternoon in land-locked cities like Manchester and Birmingham. ‘Wherever you are, there is an RNLI family waiting with open arms to come to help when called.
I love the camaraderie and teamwork of being a crewmember, you get to know your strengths and weaknesses – not everybody is good at driving the boat or fixing the engines but there is a place for everyone. And none of us can do what we do without our dedicated families, I’m extremely lucky to have such an understanding and supportive wife who’s eaten many a meal on her own over the years as I run off when the pager sounds.’