Robin Jenkins


Who Looks After the Boat?

Robin Jenkins

'[it] is about direct action – saying you will do it and taking it there. So we are building lifeboat stations in shipping containers, which we can then deploy into situations all around the world. There is still no money. But I have realised the best thing to do is ask for forgiveness rather than permission.'

Two years ago, I was invited to Japan to partake in a project to develop new ideas about the future of an area terribly affected by the tsunami of 2011. The area was called Kamaishi; it was almost entirely devastated and is in the process of rebuilding itself at the moment. Before going there my ideas about the place were based solely on what I had seen on the television and from what I had read in newspapers. My initial role there was unclear. I was going to spend five weeks researching, with probably the idea that I would make some kind of sculptural element or installation for the city, which had been hallmarked as potentially being a memorial. After spending five weeks in Kamaishi, I realised that this was highly inappropriate. The idea of a memorial become more and more repugnant as I went on, as whilst being there I met with many people and heard some incredible stories. The longer I was present in the city, the more fraudulent and foamy I felt, without any idea of what could be produced for people who had just experienced something so awful. It was only in the last week that I was told a story about the evening after the tsunami had passed. The wave had been thirty to forty metres high at some points and subsequently came after a force ten-magnitude earthquake, which sustained itself for fifteen minutes. After one massive impact of devastation, half an hour later, seven waves hit the coastline and proceeded to do untold damage. It was only in the evening that the locals really started to realise the magnitude of the whole problem when they started looking for survivors. Walking along the coastline they heard people screaming for help from the sea. When the wave actually eventually withdrew from the area, it had dragged many people with it. When I was there walking along this site by the sea it was March, but it was below freezing in temperature when the waves actually hit. Local survivors could hear people screaming for help in the sea, but could do nothing about it. They had to listen as these screams became less and less and the inevitable perishing of souls took place.


This is a story that impacted on me, and would of course have an impact on anyone who had heard it, but when the awful tale came straight from people who had experienced this trauma, it resonated in my mind for a long time. I returned to the UK still very confused about what I could actually offer. I had with me a short film showing a scene from the impact of the wave's withdrawal. The main person that comes onto the screen at the beginning of the film is the owner of the hotel where we were staying. In fact, we had been staying in the exact area caught on film. The hotel was called 'Horocan' and Akiko Iwasaki, the woman who runs it, was in her fifties when this happened. She was swept away to sea twice. In the film you can see her running along and how she manages to get out and starts to help someone else to safety. Then later she tries to rescue another drowning body and gets hauled into the water again, she is only saved as someone grabs her hair from the mass of water. This woman is absolutely incredible, a force of energy. The idea of resilience is really embodied in Akiko, who is now prospering despite such difficult circumstances. The hotel, which she is actually expanding, is about the only thing that survived in that area. Immediately after the tsunami, she turned it into an evacuation centre. All the people affected gathered there, she did this all off her own back.


Approaching five years later, the tsunami and its impact are still the main topics of conversation in Kamaishi. The thing that the local population talks about the most is 11th March 2011 when the disaster struck. Akiko shows the tsunami film every morning in the hotel and then gives a talk about what happened there. All the guests have the chance to go and sit and listen to her repeat over and over what happened. While I was there on my return trip, things became really obvious to me. The effects of this trauma was like a sickness, something local residents cannot rid themselves of. It is something that will resonate with them for a long time. They are in fact, still in a state of shock. This was a really big eye-opener. I also received news of the aid that would be supplied to people in the region; a five-year programme with finance, support and so on. But once this five-year programme is complete, it is up to the locals to re-establish themselves alone. Kamaishi is located in the North East of Japan, a very beautiful location. However, it was not a very prosperous city before 2011, it was already a city in a state of depression. Its industry, mainly steel, was withdrawing and people were leaving. So the last thing it needed was a tsunami and an earthquake to add to its current situation.


While we were in Kamaishi, there were many conversations about what we could do. Two projects came out of these discussions. One was to rethink the poorly maintained paths that are dotted along the coastline of the whole area as escape routes. We are putting a design together with four students from University of the Arts London, who we took in the summer to investigate and research the site. Together we have put forward a proposal to rebuild these paths, but not only as escape routes. Kamaishi is located in a really beautiful part of the world; it is surrounded by nature yet it is not within the tradition there to have nature trails. There are not many places in the north where you can just wonder into the countryside, its quite inaccessible. There is something already being developed a little bit further down the coast where there is heavy duty or 'heavy-handed' coastal path not really sympathetic to the coastline. However there are also many people from the area already having great ideas and who are desperate for re-building. So we have teamed up with Akiko from the hotel and with an NGO called J Forest who are already using recycled, resilient materials to start rebuilding.


The other project requires some background history by way of explanation. I grew up on the coast in Wales in an international school there which is famous for inventing the rigid-hull inflatable boat. Atlantic College designed and built this raft in the 60s as a way to resolve a problem of going out to sea, looking for sailing boats that got into trouble. The boat used at the time is very common, the Zodiac, but it has problems in rough seas, as it is extremely uncomfortable. The headmaster of the school (an international sixth form college for students between the ages of sixteen and nineteen) gave the students the task of coming up with a solution. For me, there are many interesting things about this process. Normally a boat would be designed by naval engineers, naval architects or boat scientists, this boat, however, was built by young students with no experience at all. The way in which they approached it was through a process of a kind of creative engineering, an exercise in lateral thinking rather than a logical thinking. They did not have a rulebook, but they did have the situation in front of them, the Bristol Channel, which is a very rough piece of sea. They looked at the problem, messed around with boats in the sea and they came back with a solution to the problem that actually, most designers would find disgusting – no drawings, no calculations, no prepping – they just had a chalkboard where they would draw sketches, it was trial and error. Some of the boats they built were hilarious, ridiculous designs that of course did not work. But then at one point they hit the sweet spot and they designed the rigid-hull inflatable boat, which is one of the most successful boats in seafaring history. You see them all around the world, all over the place. The design was adopted by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in partnership with the college, which patented the design to the RNLI for one pound. They are still upset about it to this day because they would have taken about fifteen per cent of its value. Atlantic College, which is an international charity school, is short of money all the time. If they had held onto this patent they would have been extremely wealthy.


Atlantic College had a lifeboat of its own supplied by the RNLI, which because of health and safety, was removed last year after forty years in service. The boat was operated by students there and has left a gaping hole in the activities carried out at the school. I have been working there to come up with some sort of idea about how to move this boating history to the future. There was a sense of serendipity with what was going on as it aligned so neatly with the tsunami project. So when I was hearing about people being dragged out to sea in Kamaishi and losing their lives, I asked the question, 'where is your lifeboat service'? In fact, Japan does not have a lifeboat service, nothing at all. They have the coastguard, whose main reason for existence is mainly linked to defence. I was absolutely flabbergasted. Suddenly it occurred to me that there was a project here: we are going to setup a lifeboat service in Japan. So I thought about this over the summer, returned to Japan and spoke to my contacts there about this idea. There was a lot of excitement and agreement. I thought the best thing to do would be to build a prototype boat, bring it to Kamaishi and then take it from there. I came back to the UK again and went down to Atlantic College, without prior warning, to tell them that they should make a prototype rescue boat to take to Japan. It all went from there. I left the students with the task of designing some sort of emergency vessel that could survive a tsunami while I worked out how to get such a prototype made in Japan.


This project has not been easy. In fact, it has been an unbelievable headache. When I went initially and proposed this idea, everybody was thumbs up, so I got on with it. Now with subsequent journeys back to Japan, the reaction has been slightly different. The questions that keep on coming up are, 'who looks after the boat? Who maintains it'? And, obviously, 'who pays for it'? So, I realised what type of person I am in this process and I think one sentence that would describe me is, 'just really angry, constantly angry'. I am not saying it is a good condition, but I am becoming more aware of it. I had this conversation with my father, I told him that I am angry all the time, to which he replied, 'this is very good, but make sure you're not bitter'. I think this is a good way of thinking about the situation and the world that we are in at the moment. I spent a lot of my time as a youth with my brother, fighting in the streets at demonstrations about things that I have been incensed by and became even more incensed when nothing happened. The thing about this project in Japan is that I am having to jump through bureaucratic hoops. Pretty much everywhere we go, people say 'no' as a starting point. I have been thinking, if I were going to try and sell them a gun that would kill people more efficiently than any other gun out there, I bet I would have been flown out first class, wine and dined. But in the attempt to make life better, save lives, or do anything that seems to be positive, you are faced with this wall. It was so interesting to be at the Nance Initiative event (see page') in Switzerland where there were delegates from all around the world who (and it was an amazing event) but one thing that stood out to me was that these people need to be pampered. They seem to need to have so much provided to them before they even listen. It is as if they have to stay in a five star hotel and have a guaranteed lunch, refreshments and treats and then they will take heed. Now this makes me fucking angry and as a consequence to that, my attitude through these projects has been to be belligerent, to be stubborn and at the same time we have to be clever. I think there is a problem with always thinking about 'us and them'. I think the idea that there is this overlap between policy makers and creatives (engineers and artists and designers and so on), is essential. I think there is a really great opportunity at the moment and listening to David Cross' conversation (see page'), I just thought how exciting to hear the idea that we can make a real move, with genuine steps.


We have now built the boat. It is nothing special, it is nothing unique, but it is more about an intent. It goes to Japan next summer with a crew of five people from Atlantic College. We will train crew there and we will also teach them how to make this boat. We are not going to give it to them, but we are lending it to them for eighteen months. Furthermore, we are in the process at the moment of making a project, which is a lifeboat in a box. I agreed that I would design the lifeboat station, then got back to the UK and realised I have no time or experience, when it occurred to me – how are we going to get this boat there? It is going to go in a shipping container and the best thing is that when this boat arrives, the shipping container opens up and it has a second life as a lifeboat station. It has a changing room, it has a quad bike to launch the boat and it has all of the facilities to repair it. We will be providing them with a workshop and I have got a committee of people working on this project now and the next thing is about direct action – saying you will do it and taking it there. So we are building lifeboat stations in shipping containers, which we can then deploy into situations all around the world. There is still no money. But I have realised the best thing to do is ask for forgiveness rather than permission.


Robin Jenkins is currently taking a year long sabbatical from his position as Lecturer in Interior Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Arts to develop his project: Atlantic Pacific International Rescue Boat Project, which is a development from his work in Japan. He is an active lifeboat crewmember with the Thames Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and a practicing artist.