I’ve recently taken a few days off. It was much-needed. As I’m sure you’ll have gleaned over the years, my head can be an extremely busy place. During this mid-year relaxation, I tilled some headspace and forgotten how glorious that can be.
To be frank, I’m generally preoccupied and obsessed with the project that you’re all kind enough to support. Always thinking about how I can make improvements. Better ways to make the work. Better ways to tell the story. Better ways to engage with my audience. All, hopefully, leading to better ways to stay afloat mentally, emotionally and financially.
So the downtime has been wonderful. I’ve managed to discover a more peaceful, reflective state of mind for the first time in, well, a long time. It’s been a period of thinking about what’s gone before and what’s to come.
I’ve also been patting myself on the back for everything achieved so far and savouring some of the happy memories, rather than dwelling on how to untangle the difficulties. Self-praise is important too, particularly if you’re used to beating yourself up…as I am.
When I look through the Galleries, I find it really hard to believe that I’ve been to all those places and made all those photographs. Scrolling through the 40,000 or so behind-the-scenes photographs on my phone, have I really met all those people and had so many special experiences? Yes, I have. A life’s journey already, and still three and a half years to go.
I feel there’s a further dimension to this period of reflection because I’m about to hit upon another landmark: there will be a point on my next mission when I’ll be tipping into double-figures of lifeboat stations remaining.
Heading into 2020, I’ll just have 90 stations to go!
I know what it takes to photograph 90 lifeboat stations. I can do that. It feels exciting, moving and, above all, achievable.
The language surrounding the project has changed notably too. People are asking more often, “What will you do when you’re finished?” And sentences like, “Wow, you’ve got a long way to go!” have become, “Well, you’ve cracked the back of it now.”
Like me, others can see the end in sight, the flickering light on the horizon.
So, if you see some older images appearing on my social channels, that’s what it’s all about. Over the next three years, I’m intending to show more and more of the previous work alongside the new. The memories stowed in the locker alongside the fresh ones billowing in the breeze.
I reckon it’ll neatly refresh my stalwart followers about the journey so far, whilst giving newcomers an immediate insight into the size of the project they’ve stumbled upon.
This all puts me in mind of a very special sight I witnessed in Dungeness last September, a modern lifeboat ritual of the highest order.
I’d arrived at the lifeboat station on a breezy Wednesday evening after making the short hop from Rye Harbour, a little further west along the Kent coast. If time and logistics allow, I like to have a little recce the evening before so that I can suss the lay of the land and say hello to anybody who might be around.
This time, I got much more than I bargained for.
The car park was full, which would likely mean one of two things: the lifeboat crew had been paged to launch on service or Wednesday night is exercise night at Dungeness.
As I suspected, it was the latter. The lifeboat volunteers had mustered in the crew room and were being briefed by the Coxswain.
I left them to it, sauntering outside to take in the stiffening air. It was a classically clean blue sky, wispy white clouds gently sprayed from a can above the horizon. The hot temperatures had finally calmed down but the strong winds forecast for the following day had rocked up early in this wild spot, encrusted by one of Europe’s largest expanses of shingle.
Then came the overture of swinging doors, the hubbub of banter and the familiar rustle of yellows (lifeboat slang for their waterproof clothing). The huge submersible launch tractor fired up. On the signal, the space-age Shannon class lifeboat was pushed out from the shed and crawled across the vast crunching hinterland, like a rocket to its launch pad.
Once the crew had safely powered into the distance, I loved the hour or two of relative peace. The subtle chatter of the shore crew, the flexing breeze and the darkening sky kept me company. Again, a time to catch up with my thoughts, introduce myself to some folk and polish some glass ready for the next day’s photographs.
When I returned to the beach, I snatched a prized chance for a snooze on the steep shelving beach (I can sleep just about anywhere, especially on such a perfect bed).
When I opened my eyes, I was instantly aware that the lifeboat was on its way back. I sat up, arms clasped around knees, eyes gripped on the horizon. Nothing yet.
To my left, a green light appeared further up the coast. A fast green light. For the uninitiated, a green light on a vessel is the starboard navigation light — it’s a way of indicating the right hand side of the boat. There’s a red light on the left (port) side.
At this time of night, there was only one vessel around that could be travelling so swiftly. I found that lone green star thrilling, telling a story all of its own. Like reading a line on a page, we traced her along the horizon.
If that lifeboat, speeding through the inky waters, was going to find its way back to us, it surely wouldn’t be long before she turned, enabling us to see the port navigation light dancing alongside its green sidekick.
That’s exactly what happened. A twinkling red star to join the party. And what a surreal sight to see an 18 tonne vessel driving directly towards us, the sublime rumble of those engines drawing rapidly closer, filling the space and stealing the breeze.
I broke away from my trance, turning my head to check what was happening over my shoulder, only to see one of the most beautiful scenes on the journey so far: the shore crew standing in formation, a lone figure holding a flashing red beacon aloft.
The stature of this simple transaction of trust hit me from one direction while the lifeboat continued to charge from the other. The hairs on my neck stood on end. What a thrill!
The helmsmen was driving the lifeboat towards the beach at 20 knots, aiming for that flashing beacon. In the darkness, it’s all he had. And it had to be right.
Seconds later, the lifeboat scooted up the beach with pinpoint accuracy, the displaced water chasing her stern and catching up a few seconds later. There were no surprises for the shore crew. This was run-of the-mill stuff for them.
But it was kid-in-a-sweet-shop stuff for me. Then I remembered to breathe again.
The 650hp engines continued to purr away, like a huge twin-hearted sea creature, beached but still breathing, the shingle vibrating beneath my boots.
It was one of those sublime moments from the last few years that will stay with me. It had so many resonances of other great things. If you follow my personal Twitter feed, you might have seen me eulogising about the Apollo space missions.
This occasion at Dungeness shared a real sense of that, of bringing them home.
In the light of the things I wrote earlier, I feel it also resonates with the project: after a while of just seeing the one sparkly navigation light powering along the horizon, this big ol’ vessel’s gradually turning to bring both lights into view.
There’s a way to go yet — and we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves — but there’s a real sense of bringing this project home. And not just for me. But for everyone who’s supported it, taken part and willed it on its way.
When we’re standing in the gallery together, wherever it may be, and looking at all the work around the walls, I imagine we’ll feel the power all around us and maybe even the rumbling beneath our feet.
Thank you for reading…and enjoy your evening,
Newcastle upon Tyne, 13th August 2019
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