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Photographing Every Lifeboat Station In Britain & Ireland With A Victorian Camera

10th April 2015
Photographing Every Lifeboat Station In Britain & Ireland With A Victorian Camera

#RNLI - Jack Lowe has loved the RNLI since he was a little boy. He became a member of Storm Force, the charity’s club for children, at the age of eight – about the same time he picked up his first camera.

Now, he’s bringing his two passions together in a unique undertaking: The Lifeboat Station Project.

Jack plans to visit all 237 RNLI lifeboat stations in Britain and Ireland, photographing the view from each station along with the crew and coxswain/senior helm using wet plate collodion, a Victorian process that allows him to record stunning images on glass.

The ambitious project is likely to take three to five years to complete. Jack, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, travels in 'Neena' — a decommissioned NHS ambulance purchased on eBay and converted into a mobile darkroom.

Grandson of Dad’s Army actor Arthur Lowe, also an avid RNLI supporter, Jack explains: "My early childhood was spent on a Victorian schooner in Ramsgate harbour and on the Thames. My Dad is an experienced seafarer and introduced me to the wonders of lifeboats – these wonderful, powerful pieces of kit designed for heroic, lifesaving missions on stormy seas.

"From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be either a photographer or a lifeboat crew member when I grew up. Now I’m following my heart and uniting the two dreams.

"I’m using a photographic technique developed in the 1850s, around the time that the RNLI was incorporated under Royal Charter. The photographs are made directly onto glass plates known as 'ambrotypes'."

Jack has already documented all 15 stations on the East Anglian coast.

“The project now enjoys an incredible extra dimension as everyone is so involved and engaged with it," he says. "The coxswain and crew can step into the ambulance and watch a portrait of themselves developing. They are entranced, often rendered speechless and sometimes moved to tears!"



Jack began drawing up plans for the project over two years ago. He says he has always had an interest in the history of photography.

"The word photography means drawing with light and that is how I think about it still. I adore photography in this very raw, basic form — light falling on chemicals. It really is magical – the final image is always a surprise, even to me."



He adds: "There’s a small global community of people interested in using these old techniques. Everyone works in their own way – and you’re always learning as you go along.

"The chemicals are the original formulae from the 1800s. It took me a long time to figure out the logistics of transporting and storing glass plates. I have a box made for each station that holds 10 sheets of 10x12” glass. Then when I get them back to Newcastle I scan them, varnish them and then place them into storage."



It’s a real labour of love, even for a dedicated RNLI fan, but Jack always looks forward to his next station visit.



Follow Jack Lowe’s RNLI photographic mission on Facebook, on Twitter or on the project’s dedicated site.

Published in RNLI Lifeboats
MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy is a contributor covering all things on the water, from boating and wildlife to science and business

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Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) in Ireland Information

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) is a charity to save lives at sea in the waters of UK and Ireland. Funded principally by legacies and donations, the RNLI operates a fleet of lifeboats, crewed by volunteers, based at a range of coastal and inland waters stations. Working closely with UK and Ireland Coastguards, RNLI crews are available to launch at short notice to assist people and vessels in difficulties.

RNLI was founded in 1824 and is based in Poole, Dorset. The organisation raised €210m in funds in 2019, spending €200m on lifesaving activities and water safety education. RNLI also provides a beach lifeguard service in the UK and has recently developed an International drowning prevention strategy, partnering with other organisations and governments to make drowning prevention a global priority.

Irish Lifeboat Stations

There are 46 lifeboat stations on the island of Ireland, with an operational base in Swords, Co Dublin. Irish RNLI crews are tasked through a paging system instigated by the Irish Coast Guard which can task a range of rescue resources depending on the nature of the emergency.

Famous Irish Lifeboat Rescues

Irish Lifeboats have participated in many rescues, perhaps the most famous of which was the rescue of the crew of the Daunt Rock lightship off Cork Harbour by the Ballycotton lifeboat in 1936. Spending almost 50 hours at sea, the lifeboat stood by the drifting lightship until the proximity to the Daunt Rock forced the coxswain to get alongside and successfully rescue the lightship's crew.

32 Irish lifeboat crew have been lost in rescue missions, including the 15 crew of the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) lifeboat which capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the SS Palme on Christmas Eve 1895.

FAQs

While the number of callouts to lifeboat stations varies from year to year, Howth Lifeboat station has aggregated more 'shouts' in recent years than other stations, averaging just over 60 a year.

Stations with an offshore lifeboat have a full-time mechanic, while some have a full-time coxswain. However, most lifeboat crews are volunteers.

There are 46 lifeboat stations on the island of Ireland

32 Irish lifeboat crew have been lost in rescue missions, including the 15 crew of the Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) lifeboat which capsized while attempting to rescue the crew of the SS Palme on Christmas Eve 1895

In 2019, 8,941 lifeboat launches saved 342 lives across the RNLI fleet.

The Irish fleet is a mixture of inshore and all-weather (offshore) craft. The offshore lifeboats, which range from 17m to 12m in length are either moored afloat, launched down a slipway or are towed into the sea on a trailer and launched. The inshore boats are either rigid or non-rigid inflatables.

The Irish Coast Guard in the Republic of Ireland or the UK Coastguard in Northern Ireland task lifeboats when an emergency call is received, through any of the recognised systems. These include 999/112 phone calls, Mayday/PanPan calls on VHF, a signal from an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or distress signals.

The Irish Coast Guard is the government agency responsible for the response to, and co-ordination of, maritime accidents which require search and rescue operations. To carry out their task the Coast Guard calls on their own resources – Coast Guard units manned by volunteers and contracted helicopters, as well as "declared resources" - RNLI lifeboats and crews. While lifeboats conduct the operation, the coordination is provided by the Coast Guard.

A lifeboat coxswain (pronounced cox'n) is the skipper or master of the lifeboat.

RNLI Lifeboat crews are required to follow a particular development plan that covers a pre-agreed range of skills necessary to complete particular tasks. These skills and tasks form part of the competence-based training that is delivered both locally and at the RNLI's Lifeboat College in Poole, Dorset

 

While the RNLI is dependent on donations and legacies for funding, they also need volunteer crew and fund-raisers.

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