Review: Safer Oceans campaign: Searchlight

Award-winning film maker, Dan McDougall, is behind a four-part body of work commissioned by global safety charity, Lloyd’s Register Foundation as part of its Safer Oceans campaign, the first of which has been just released and can be watched here.

Entitled Searchlight, it focuses on three young women who volunteer for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in Oban, West Scotland, which has some of the most changeable and treacherous waters off the British coast.

Oban RNLI volunteer, Lawrie, prepares to deploy to sea

Searchlight’s protagonists, Lawrie, Leonie and Jasmin, all eloquently detail the sense of purpose, belonging, community and confidence their volunteering brings them and how it is possible to find yourself in the service of others.

Leonie sums it up beautifully: “It’s been joining the boat that has given me confidence. Being a volunteer isn’t just a privilege, it’s a way to grow and find out who you really are too.”

The film has been beautifully shot in Oban in the West Highlands of Scotland, where the local RNLI has one of the largest life-boat areas to cover in the UK.

The waters are deceptive, changing from tranquil to wild in no time at all and the crew’s preparedness and professionalism is evident throughout the film, as is the sense of local community and RNLI family.

The local RNLI has one of the largest rescue areas to cover in the UK and the waters around the coastline are deceptive, changing from tranquil to wild in no time at all.

The RNLI crew rely on at least three different weather reports to give an accurate picture of the conditions, so it is easy to see how people get into trouble in these seas which next meet land in Canada, with the exception of Tiree.

The film sets the scene by describing the power of the Scottish climate and how it has shaped the people of the region. Indeed, the Scots have more than 100 words for rain from dreich (a miserable, wet day) to spindrift (a spray whipped up by the wind).

Leonie begins: “The story of the RNLI has always had women in it. The women volunteers today aren’t the pioneers – others led the way. She finishes: “Grace Darling* became a national hero in 1838. That wasn’t yesterday, was it?”

A theme that runs through the documentary is the RNLI crew as a family and community that supports and encourages one another. Lawrie came to Oban from Stranraer in South West Scotland for the lifeboats (her partner is a full-time Coxswain for the charity), knowing no-one and the volunteers at the station quickly became her close friends.

Leonie was born and raised in Snowdonia but has always been drawn to the sea and again, was welcomed by the RNLI family, who also include many other volunteers including youngest member, Andrew, longest-serving member, Ian (described as the “biggest hero on the boat”) and “heart of the boat” and full-time mechanic, Tom.

Jasmin is originally from Oban but after living in Australia for some time and witnessing the ongoing damage to the Great Barrier Reef, she returned home to train as a marine scientist at the local University of the Highlands and Islands, which has its own research institute, the Scottish Association for Marine Science. The film touches on climate change and the currently unknown risks the UK faces if changes occur to the Gulf Stream.


The crew’s preparedness and professionalism are evident throughout the film. Jasmin says: “When the pager goes off, you just go into the zone and get to the station. Going out on the boat in a storm, there’s an element of managing fear, because you don’t always know what you’re going to and it could be something that’s not necessarily very nice but I think you internalise that. There’s not really time to be scared.”

Lawrie says: “When we’re on call, you’ve always got that one eye on the horizon.” A point Leonie picks up later in the documentary when she says, “When you’re on call, there’s always a sense of disquiet. That you’re always waiting.”

The sense of community is a thread that runs through the series of films. As Lawrie says: “It’s through the spirit of community that I came to see the lifeboat station as the best of us. Something that I wanted to be a part of.”

On board with the Oban RNLI team

The community storyline also links to the Caledonian MacBrayne ferries that serve the West Coast of Scotland. One of the other crew members, Andrew, works on the ferries when he’s not volunteering for the RNLI and the documentary drives home how much the local islands rely on the sea for providing transport for work, goods, visiting friends and relatives and healthcare (including the delivery of four babies on RNLI vessels).

Film-maker, Dan McDougall, said: “As the team interviewed Leonie, Lawrie and Jasmin, it became clear that first responder volunteerism wasn’t necessarily the act of sacrifice that we often conclude it to be. Within this powerful and uplifting triptych narrative, the story was less about getting under the skin of what it takes to be a rescuer, and more about exploring and understanding the personal growth of three very different women through volunteerism.

“Each of them had gained confidence, community and personal growth through their RNLI roles and their interwoven lives had given them a profound sense of purpose and togetherness. A shared unity that had become the main driving force of their lives.

The film goes to the heart of understanding what it takes to risk your own safety and sanity to save the lives of others and then goes further again to find an almost unbridled joy and pride in doing something that serves others? Something that is emotionally, physically and creatively challenging. All consuming. To be an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.”

McDougall continues: We’ve taken a multimedia approach to the films for marketing and creative purposes. For Searchlight we commissioned Finbarr O’Reilly, a multi award-winning visual journalist whose 20-year career has seen him work in conflict zones and complex humanitarian emergencies. Their incredible and powerful images accompany the project and form the backdrop for the posters.”

Ruth Boumphrey, CEO of Lloyd’s Register Foundation, said: “Through this documentary, we honour the people working at sea and keeping others safe. Far too many people are still losing their lives at sea and this risk grows as the ocean economy doubles in the next ten years. As a global safety charity, it’s Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s mission to engineer a safer world – and that includes a safer ocean.

“If there are other organisations out there doing work in this space and would benefit from us sharing this film or other ones in our series, please do contact us. As well as grant funding safety at sea programmes, we collaborate with partners around the world to raise awareness of ocean related safety challenges with a view to driving positive change.”

Jamie Chestnutt, RNLI Director of Engineering and Supply, said: “We are delighted to be part of the foundation’s ocean safety series and we hope the film gives viewers an insight into the incredible hard work and dedication of our volunteer crews across the UK and Ireland.

“As a charity that saves lives at sea, we play our part in promoting safety at sea and we are incredibly proud to share our knowledge and understanding with a global audience”.

What did I think of the film?

The focus on women who work on the lifeboats does go against the usual stereotypical image of “a bloke in a beard on a boat”.

Within the beautiful setting of Oban, with its wild seas, rainy summers, cliff edges, puffins and tourism, the RNLI look out for the local community of residents and workers, as well as those who come into the island by ferry.

Leonie and her colleagues are scientists, meteorologists, climate activists, carers, and lovers of the mysteries of the sea.

There may not he enough time on a call-out to be scared, but the might of the ocean needs to be both feared and respected. This is a film which acts as both regional propaganda and an educational tool, showing the crews and work and play, engrained in their rich social history of volunteer service.

The rest of the series

The second film, titled Two Kinds of Water, which will launch later this summer explores the lives of the people of Senegal who fish the coastline of West Africa, which is home to some of the most diverse and dangerous waters in the world.

The third film, Salt Lines, will launch in Autumn and tells the extraordinary and uplifting story of a single mother, hauling lobster traps for a living in Maine, USA. And the fourth film, planned for early 2023 called I love you, over’ will explore the life of ocean workers who must leave their families for long periods of time.

The aim of the films is to shine a light on the dangers faced by those who are reliant on the ocean for their livelihoods and to spark debate and change across business, industry and Government to make the seas a safer place.

Photo credit: Finbarr O’Reilly.