Roger Cox: RNLI photo exhibition shows role of heroes

Les Coe, who features in the Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts book and exhibition. Picture: Contributed
Les Coe, who features in the Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts book and exhibition. Picture: Contributed
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The RNLI has played a heroic role in recent storms. Now a new exhibition celebrates the work of this amazing charity

Scanning the RNLI Twitter feed during the monster storm of 3 January, I was reminded of the black and white Battle of Britain films I used to watch as a kid. Something about the regularity of the tweets and their geographical spread made it feel as if the whole of the UK was under siege – not from the Luftwaffe this time, but from Mother Nature.

“Two @RNLI flood rescue teams are on standby at Central Fire Station, Belfast…Newquay’s Fistral Beach has taken another battering overnight, as can be seen from the @RNLI lifeguard tower… four saved from Welsh farm by @RNLI and other agencies…”

Somewhere, I thought, there must be an underground RNLI control bunker, with young women pushing little wooden lifeboats around a map with unfeasibly long sticks while mustachioed officer types nervously check their watches and exchange knowing glances.

Of course, the reality is a little less melodramatic and a lot more hi-tech, but the fact remains that, when these islands are hammered by extreme weather, the most daring aquatic rescues are carried out, not by some government-funded agency, but by an army of orange-clad volunteers.

The RNLI is a charity, dependent on contributions and legacies from the public to remain operational, yet miraculously it manages to field 400 fast, modern boats from stations all around the country, rescuing more than 7,000 people each year. Who knows how many people its members plucked from the water during the 3 January storm alone? The AA claims to be the fourth emergency service but, with respect, the folks in yellow should probably think about ceding that title to the men and women in orange, who routinely risk their lives for free.

These largely unsung heroes are being celebrated in Edinburgh this month, as the subjects of a touring outdoor exhibition by photographer Nigel Millard. For the last ten years, Millard – himself a volunteer lifeboat crew member – has travelled the UK, documenting the work of the RNLI. The result is a book entitled Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts, featuring more than 400 photographs, and 50 of the best will be on display in Edinburgh’s Castle Street until 24 January.

I had previously thought of Millard as a portrait photographer, having interviewed him a couple of years ago when he brought out a book of famous seafarer profiles entitled Face to Face: Ocean Portraits, in collaboration with historian Huw Lewis-Jones. Some of the portraits in Lifeboat... will be familiar to anyone who bought that earlier book – the direct, close-up style; the obvious rapport with the subjects – but these are just one facet of the project.

Millard has also taken some phenomenal action shots of lifeboats being pummelled by heavy seas. In his picture of the Buckie all-weather boat, William Blannin, the vessel is almost completely engulfed in a wall of spray, with only the very top of the superstructure visible. Even more dramatic is his shot of the St Davids boat, Garside, which looks as if a wave is about to curl right over the top of it during an exercise in Ramsey Sound, off the Pembrokeshire coast, in a spot known locally as “the washing machine”.

There are some wonderfully surreal images, too, which betray a real artist’s eye: five trainee lifeboatmen, huddling together in yellow life jackets, look like an exotic flower when shot from above; the Skegness lifeboat, pictured with the ferris wheel of the local funfair towering behind, seems spectacularly out of place; and in a picture taken from inside the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, the town lifeboat, returning home from an exercise, appears to be trying to gatecrash Rodin’s famous sculpture, The Kiss.

My favourite shot, however, is a classic Millard portrait. Les Coe, who has been involved with the lifeboat station at Walmer, Kent, for over 50 years, stands on the station slipway proudly holding a model lifeboat. His smile seems to express both surprise and delight, that somebody from out of town should be taking such an interest in the thing he’s devoted so much of his life to.

• To order Lifeboat: Courage on our Coasts, or to find out more about the RNLI, visit