As if juggling being a landscape photographer, teacher and mum weren’t enough, Helen has also found time to volunteer for the RNLI for 20 years. It’s thanks to the dedication of women like Helen that we are able to carry out our adventures with the knowledge that help will come if it is needed. I caught up with her to find out what life is really like being an RNLI crew member.
Name: Helen Iles
Home: Barmouth, Wales
Environment I like most: Mountains and Sea
Best place I’ve visited: British coastline: So many beautiful places I can’t choose. Soft spot for North Wales.
Fav adventure: Backpacking around the world with my husband and kids for 3 months.
Dream adventure: On the hit-list, Greenland, Antarctic or Artic before they change forever.
Can’t go on an adventure without? My camera
Tell us a bit about you.
I’m a part-time landscape photographer, part-time teacher, mum (18 and 14), wife and volunteer for Barmouth Life Boat Crew. Being lucky enough to live in Snowdonia I spend a lot of my free time up in the mountains camping, scrambling and doing photography.
When did you join the RNLI and what made you sign up?
I was brought up in a family that dived, swam and always had boats. When I moved back to Wales it seemed the natural thing to do. I joined in 1997 and have been a member of the Inshore boat (ILB) and Offshore boat (ALB) crew ever since.
You’ve stuck it out a long time, you must really like it?
I love being out at sea. The rougher the weather the more challenging it is. I get to work with state of the art equipment and I love the physicality of what we do. Our training and ‘shouts’ the crew have done together makes us a close knit team and that’s a special bond. The satisfaction of saving a life…… priceless, no words can describe that.
What’s been the most memorable moment you’ve had with the RNLI?
Having been on the crew for 20 years this year I’ve had many amazing moments. One that stands out was when we were called to three young men in difficulty in the water. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a fourth just as he disappeared below the surface. We raced over to him on the ILB as he was sinking and pulled him into the boat. He was unconscious but, by the time we landed him and got the helicopter to evacuate him to hospital, he had regained consciousness (and thrown up all over me!).
More recently we were called out in the middle of the night on the ALB to three Irish sailors swept out to sea and lost in the bay. We searched for hours in cold and miserable conditions but located them at 3am. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack but we found them. Just two of many stories I could mention.
Any difficult or challenging times?
Yes, some dreadful ones. My worst; I lost my best friend (and life boat crew member) at sea 13 years ago. We searched for 36 hours straight in horrendous conditions but weren’t successful. It was a very dark time for the crew.
How do you juggle work, volunteering and being a mum?
When the children were young it was very difficult. I used to have to pay baby sitters to go training, my Mum was also a great help. The nature of the pagers going, however, was more difficult. I went on call outs when I could. As we are volunteers from all walks of life the RNLI has to take this into account.
Now my children are older I have more freedom, and so my availability is better. I still can’t make every call out but I do what I can.
Do your family also like the outdoors?
My kids love the outdoors, they run, mountain bike and hike in all conditions with me. My husband is a mad keen cyclist. Last year our presents to them were a diving course, so now they are qualified to dive with us, we did our first family dive last summer and it was a fantastic feeling.
Tell us about your favourite adventure?
So many! I’ve travelled around the world twice, First time with Ian for a year when we were in our 20s. We dived in remote locations, living the dream in shacks on beaches under coconut palms, climbing the peaks and volcanoes of Indonesia, driving a Combi van across the Outback, trekking for days in New Zealand. Then 8 years ago we travelled again with our (then) young children. Nepal was especially wonderful with the kids, people opened their doors and we became members of the families. An insight we didn’t have before. We trekked parts of the Annapurna circuit with them, sleeping in tea houses and they still talk about their memories of the trip. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to visit Brazil for carnival, Iceland for a photography adventure and many more places.
Closer to home I have done a lot of wild camping in Snowdonia. The night skies here are amazing, you can’t beat waking up, opening the tent and being on top of a frozen mountain with a cloud inversion below you.
What advice would you give women who want to help give back to the adventure world in the way you have done?
Just do it. Don’t look for excuses why not to, look for reasons why you should. As far as I’m aware we only get one chance at this thing called life. Family first always, but then have a bit of you time. From experience I was a better Mum for having an active life and satisfying my need to be outdoors, be it on the boat, walking, running or photographing.
Entering a ‘traditionally’ man’s world can be difficult. Just be as good as you can be, and a bit more, and keep positive. Show everyone by example. You have to be thick-skinned sometimes and let a lot of ‘I’m only being funny’ comments float by, regardless of how cutting they are. Some people’s attitudes are never going to change; I’ve learnt silence can be more powerful than rising to the bait. However, if I see out right bullying or discrimination taking place I will shout from the roof tops.
If you fancy joining the RNLI call in at one of the stations and get chatting to the crew. Hardly any of the crews have experience of the sea before they joined so don’t be put off if you don’t have experience. Ask for the Hon Secs number and give them a call.
Keep active! It’s never too late. I walk miles and miles each week in Snowdonia, usually solo. I took up running again 18 months ago after a 20 year break – my legs have never felt stronger.
It’s important to do these things for our daughters; we have to pave the way to make adventuring and exploring by women more the norm.
Is there anything specific that you need to keep in mind if you want to join the RNLI?
Be aware that it can take up a lot of your time and needs a lot of commitment. After going out to sea a few times you will know if it is for you. The training is amazing, won’t cost you a penny and the team comradery is unbeatable. You will learn all types of skills from first aid to navigation, and these skills are transferrable to the wider world. There can be sad times but there are also incredible times.
What would your advice be to your 10-year-old self?
You know you are an adventurer, a bit different. Chase those dreams and don’t worry so much about conforming.
Be more confident in who you are.
What are your longer term goals, what do you hope for the future?
*The cutoff age limit for the ILB is 45 and ALB is 60. I have already surpassed the 45 limit by being fit and because of my skill set. I hope this continues for a while yet. Also on station soon we will hopefully be getting a Shannon all singing, all dancing multi-million pound jet boat. I hope that I will be part of the team for this.
*Visit Greenland, Antarctica or the Arctic. I’d love to trek and photograph these environments before they change beyond the point of return. We live in an environmentally fragile world.
*Closer to home I have decided one of my 50th bucket lists items is to take a group of local women up Cadair Idris (our local mountain). I want to show them that it’s possible. If I could give one woman the confidence to solo walk I would be a happy person.
*I would love to see a woman win a title such as ‘Landscape Photographer of the Year’ or ‘Outdoor Photographer of the Year’. There are some stunning female landscape photographers out there who just aren’t getting the recognition they deserve.
Check out some more of Helen’s beautiful photography here.