“Again!” I shout into the radio… Our boat, a 7m rigid inflatable, is bobbing like a cork as I hang on, squeezed in tight at the back. The RNLI Severn class lifeboat is the largest and at £2 million one of the most expensive in the RNLI fleet. Two 22.3-litre V10 turbocharged engines deliver 1350bhp each powering this 42 tonnne, 17m long boat straight at us at a speed of 26 knots. It’s a daunting sight and as the sea rises and falls the lifeboat appears and disappears behind the waves, kicking out a spectacular wake and spray over 50ft either side of its huge hull. After an hour of shadowing the boat in ever-bigger seas we sit front row as the ballet of boat and water is performed on this dramatic Scottish stage.
I’m not sure that all the crew are sharing my enthusiasm for the shoot as at least one has already revisited his breakfast. I’m keeping both eyes open so I can see the horizon, feeling unwilling to revisit my own.
Lifeboat operations manager Islay McEachern is at the helm of our rib with retired fisherman and coastguard station officer Harold Hastie on the pump and making sure I’m safe. Both men have spent their entire lives on and around these waters. Fulltime coxswain David McLellan is at the helm of the lifeboat along with six volunteer crew.
I hand my phone to Harold to shoot a short video as the lifeboat, now only feet away, hits a huge wave and launches completely out of the water. Time seems to slow down as I watch all 42 tonnes of boat now more like a plane fly past, water trailing its hull. I’d chosen to shoot with a 70-200mm zoom and never imagined for a second I’d need a 24mm or wider lens. All photographers can empathise with missing a shot and the huge disappointment and feelings of loss this brings can linger for days, months and sometimes even years. I can only spectate as this picture of a lifetime passes right before my eyes. Harold carries on filming with the phone and gets at least half of the spectacle before he takes cover!
The thought of the boat and its 42 tonne displacement and just where exactly this weight of water was heading brought me back to reality and as I turn my back and cradle the camera another thought pops into my head: “What was it that Canon had said? Please be careful as this is the only EOS 5DS in Europe!” The bow wave hits us and a huge wall of water engulfs everything, most of it seeming to shoot up my left trouser leg. The 5DS is safely cocooned in a Think Tank rain cover and very, very carefully I change lenses to a 24-70mm and to the crews’ delight I shout into the radio: “Again!”