Legal note: all my images of Sir Richard Branson are copyright Owen Billcliffe Photography, and licensed to Virgin Management for editorial use only. For any other use, including any branding or commercial use of any kind, please get in touch with me to arrange a license. Thank you!

Above: A recreation of the original Virgin Atlantic Challenger II crew photo; back, L-R: Eckhard Rastig, Dag Pike, Peter Macann, Steve Ridgway; front L-R: Richard Branson, Dan Stevens (the new owner, standing in for Chay Blyth, not present).

On August 6th 2013 Richard Branson and the crew, new and old, of the Virgin Atlantic Challenger II sailed the recently rescued and refitted boat into Fowey harbour, 27 years after it broke the Blue Riband record for a transatlantic crossing by water in just three days, eight hours and thirty one minutes. I was ten at the time and I remember watching it on John Craven’s Newsround and thinking it must be pretty damn cool being Richard Branson and getting to do crazy things in balloons and boats (even though they always seemed fraught with danger – although that doesn’t really factor into it when you’re ten!).

I’d spent a morning earlier this year photographing Richard and his team in their new London offices at the Battleship Building and really enjoyed the day, so when Daisy at Virgin asked if I’d like to come along with them to cover the reunion in Fowey, of course I said yes.

I mean, seriously, “Are you interes-“ Yes I am!

london event photographer virgin atlantic challenger 2 - The Virgin Atlantic Challenger II Crew Reunion Official Photographer

The plan was for the old crew to reunite aboard the boat in Plymouth where it had been resting since it’s journey back from Spain where it was found languishing, purchased and renovated by Dan Stevens and his own crew. They’d sail it triumphantly into Fowey harbour, meet the press and crowds of well-wishers and then head off for fish and chips at The Russell Inn in Polruan.

Well, that’s pretty much what happened – especially the fish and chips bit – but unfortunately things got a little held up when some flotsam got into the fuel tank just outside of Plymouth! It was quickly solved by the new crew but the echoes of the terrible fuel problems the original crew endured years before were lost on nobody so while we all waited Richard gave a quick interview with the press via Daisy’s phone.

Sailing into Fowey harbour only an hour late there were celebrations all round – the press snapping away and shouting to Richard, the crowds cheering and passing up books to sign and pasties to eat (seriously, a chap from Pasty Presto in Fowey came down with a sealed box of delicious hot pasties – thank you!), reporters and TV cameras on the bow to interview the crew, and all while the sun blazed down for us. And of course a bottle of champagne for Richard to dowse the crowd with.

I managed to get a picture of myself in the cabin, taken by one of the press crew as he was packing up his own TV camera. That’s me in my commemorative jacket made especially for crew by Helly Hansen, with my D700 – I handed my Fuji X100S over to take the shot.

One of the shots Daisy was after was a recreation of the original Virgin Atlantic Challenger II crew photo from 27 years ago. Someone had a copy of it in a book so we got the crew together along with new owner Dan Stevens standing in for Chay Blyth next to Richard. The press gathered for the same shot so I took a moment to zoom a little wider and show you what the scene was really like up there on the deck.

After half an hour or so of chatting and mingling the team made their way back to the Harbour Master’s office where phone interviews with more press had been set up. Although I’m no stranger to how media works, being a TV camera operator in my other life, I’ve not really seen it from this side; Richard would be giving an interview on one phone while Daisy set up a call on another so that when the interview ended she could swap phones with Richard and set up the next call while the next interview got going – busy!

During this moment away from the crowds, nobody’s stopped working: Richard is giving interviews, shaking more hands and generally trying to say “Yes” to every request made of him; Daisy is juggling two phones, the ever-changing schedule and the arriving and departing media; Greg is glued to his laptop – even aboard the Challenger – uploading my images to the Virgin blog and updating on Twitter whenever we can scrape some reception out of the sky; and there’s a documentary crew and a photographer (me) constantly lurking, capturing every moment for the record.

And maybe it’s the weather, or the welcoming atmosphere in Fowey, or Richard’s constant flow of enthusiasm, but everyone’s happy, nobody’s stressed, the mood is light and everything just happens.

And then it was on to Polruan for those fish and chips at The Russell Inn, and they were magnificent. When they took our order they offered small, medium or large and warned us that “large means large“. When Daisy’s ‘small’ arrived let’s just say it made their point.

On the way there and back – and in fact throughout lunch – Richard was being approached by fans, with one shop owner passing out ice creams to the crew as they passed by, but it struck me how even young kids seem to know who he is. Sure, lots were thrust forward by their bashful parents but just as many needed no encouragement to chase after him for an autograph or photo, with a lovely moment on the ramp up to the jetty as he high-fived his way through a forest of hands.

And that was that! The crew got back on board their baby and set off back to Plymouth, with Richard set to appear in Exeter at another event that afternoon. The man never stops.

Technical notes / the geeky bit

For this job I wanted to go light and efficient: one bag to get everything there, then find a place to stash it and never go back to it except to move location. I’ve been carrying one of my Nikon lens bags over my shoulder to keep a lens in if I need to change but I need more kit on me than it can carry plus it’s too bulky to pack, so the week before this job I bought a Think Tank Modular Skin set with their Speed Pro belt and a harness.

The Skin pack comes with bags for a long lens, a wide lens, a flash and a camera body, but that can set up with dividers to turn it into a kit pouch. They don’t have stiff padding in the sides but they’re more substantial than just floppy thin nylon and the built-in rain jacket in the bottom acts as a nice pillow for the lenses so they’re perfect for me.

I took a flash just in case but the weather was so great I didn’t need it so I stuck to the two lens bags and a kit bag with batteries, lens cloth, card holder, pens, and occasionally my X100S. With the harness attached you can forget about the belt slipping down all the time because it never does, but I did worry about things maybe escaping the bags when I ran anywhere. You just need to get into the habit of always closing down your bags after use if you’re likely to be taking off in a hurry.

Due to the media-heavy nature of the event I didn’t feel my D700 with 24-70mm was going to be too intrusive so I stuck to that as my workhorse for the day, only really using the 70-200mm when the Challenger was on the approach into Fowey but keeping it with me all day just in case.

I still got great use out of the X100S – it was very handy for getting close candids during his press interviews so as not to get shutter clicks all over their audio, and also when I wanted to get some more informal shots of the team working. The small size was handy for getting into tight spots my D700 couldn’t go, and as ever the retro design does attract friendly attention from the people you’re photographing, which helps conversations start, which helps for taking warmer and more open portraits of them later.

There’s just one thing that keeps bothering me about the X100S: I can’t find a way to lock exposure independently of focus. On my D700 I can point the lens at the sort of scene I want to expose for, lock that exposure with a button, reframe to focus, lock the focus with the half-shutter, reframe again and shoot. No can do on the X100S. Technically the way around this is you see what the exposure is going to look like on the screen or EVF and make a manual EV adjustment – but that’s a permanent adjustment that you have to remember to put back. I’m being picky, but the camera is so good in other respects I think it can take some pickiness.

My 70-200mm developed a fault sometime between me testing it the day before, and the day of the shoot: I was noticing that exposures out of it using Aperture Priority were coming out well over-exposed. Then I noticed the f-stop preview button wasn’t stopping down the aperture at all so I popped the lens off and sure enough, checking the aperture lever on the mounting ring it wasn’t springing back like it should. Effectively the camera is locked at f/2.8 so once I realised this it was useable at least. It’s in at Fixation now for repair.

Last note – I need a better kit bag for trips like this. I was using my Crumpler medium Match Maker and had a lot packed in there for the journey. It took it well but it was tight, so if I’d needed anything else like my laptop I’d have needed an extra bag. There’s going to be times I need to take more, and get to it easier so I’m looking at a Think Tank Streetwalker Hard Drive. It looks nice. I’ll let you know.

And that’s it, thanks for reading! You can find out more about my event photography here.

Please note: my views are my own and do not represent those of my clients or anyone else pictured on my site