16 December 2016
Northern exposure: Saving lives in the wilds of Shetland
What’s it like to volunteer at our most northerly station, Aith, on the Shetland Islands? On 20 June, Photographer Jack Lowe of the Lifeboat Station Project made the most of the midsummer light, while the crew spoke about life at 60° north.
‘Odin! Here, Odin!’ A man calls his large, soppy dog back from the water’s edge. From the remains of the ancient settlements at Jarlshof, to the famously raucous winter festival of Up Helly Aa, Norse heritage flows lustily through island life.
The Vikings arrived around 800AD, and held sway for more than 600 years. These days, however, you’re more likely to see fishing boats than longships, oil exploration than metalwork. The energy industry has seen a revitalisation of Shetland’s economy, and ever more boats on the water.
‘It’s harsh. It really is,’ says Aith Coxswain Hylton Henry, his Rottweiler, Bear, at his feet. ‘The dark is probably the worst thing. Some days, we’re lucky to get 4 hours of daylight. And the wind; it just blows across the Atlantic. It’s not unusual to have 70-foot (21.3m) waves on a nasty day, mixed in with snow and rain and hail.’
It takes a hardy individual to go to sea on a rough Shetland day when the call comes in. Perhaps that’s when the Viking blood kicks in. ‘You need to be willing to go, that’s the main thing,’ Hylton advises. ‘And you need somebody that’s not seasick.’
Long shifts and motivation
There are around 20 volunteers on the crew, drawn from Aith and the surrounding settlements of Bixter, Twatt and Clousta. They train together every 10 days.
Many crew members work long shift patterns in the oil and fishing industries. Hylton recognises a potential problem: ‘It’s not easy for them to make shouts and keep their motivation up. If it’s possible, and if it’s not a rush job, I’ll wait for them and let them have a chance. It might only delay us by a minute or two, but it’s important to encourage everybody. It’d be a shame to do so much training and never get to use it.’
On a rough day, it’s better
Mechanic John Robertson joined the crew in 2013. He moved to Aith from nearby Voe after falling for a woman from the village. He and Kayla have now been married for a year. When we spoke with John, he was trying to come up with a romantic way of celebrating their anniversary. It’s a half-hour drive along a winding road to get to Lerwick, the islands’ capital. That’s where the restaurants are.
But John and Kayla are happy to have settled in Aith. ‘You go away, but you always love coming home. It’s what you’re brought up into and you love the remoteness and the way of life up here,’ John says. ‘I couldn’t live in a big city. I would change the weather, though. I think any Shetlander would say that. The winter months are wild up here. We’ve had 115mph winds recorded.’
For Kayla, though, that’s part of the magic: ‘It’s special when it’s rough and wild - which is most of the time. If you go up to Eshaness on a day like today, it’s beautiful. But on a really, really rough day, it’s better.’
Shetlanders are pretty used to weather extremes. It’s not unusual for schools to close during windy periods, for fear a bus might be blown over. And when these extremes disrupt island life for long periods, the lifeboat crew at Aith can be relied upon.
They’ve brought a nurse to the remote island of Foula (population 38) when it’s been too foggy to fly. And in the winter of 1995-96, when heavy snows made roads impassable, they spent 2 long but dark days delivering fuel, food and medication to cut-off communities in their patch, including the island of Papa Stour (population 15). Hylton was on the crew that winter.
‘That’s the thing with being up here. You have to be resourceful,’ Hylton says. ‘But if the pager goes off, day or night, even in a storm, the crew turn out. And they know what they’re facing: the sheer enormousness of the sea and the power that it holds. It’s very humbling. Very much so.’
Behind the glass
Using an early Victorian process, known as wet plate collodion, Jack Lowe is crafting unique photographs on glass at all 237 of our lifeboat stations.
Travelling in his mobile darkroom (a former NHS ambulance), he is creating an unprecedented photographic documentation, immortalising a vital aspect of our culture.
'From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be either a photographer or a lifeboat crew member when I grew up,' says Jack. 'Now I'm uniting the two dreams. I'm using a technique developed in the 1850s, in which the photographs are made directly onto glass plates. It really is magical - the final image is always a surprise, even to me.'
Aith lifeboat crew are featured in Saving Lives at Sea, a 12-part BBC series on the RNLI’s lifesaving work. Get more stories from the series here.