Pregnant Guppy transport plane

How a Pregnant Guppy got me a career…

The very ordinary photo above of an extraordinary aircraft is to me highly significant. Obviously I didn’t know it at the time, but this picture steered me towards the magnificent career I’ve had for the past 30-plus years.

It was taken at Gatwick Airport on 10th March 1982, four years after I’d discovered photography, when forced to do an O-level in it to ensure I had enough lessons to fill my week in sixth form. My mate Alan Taylor encouraged me behind the camera, as he was doing the O-level, reckoned it would be easy and we would “have a laugh.”

That was in the September – by Christmas that year my parents couldn’t get into their bathroom as I was printing pictures in it and I wasn’t going to be a design draftsman any more (I never really knew why I was going on that career path), I was going to be a photographer. And having made that decision I of course didn’t take the obvious route of going to college to study photography. No, I was fed up with learning so I got a job on the photo and electrical counter of TV & Radio Services, also my home town’s most popular record shop – many stories can be told of that place, but perhaps another time…

An unusual arrival

Anyway, back to 1981. It’s my day off, the phone rings and it’s my dad, who worked for British Airways down the road at Gatwick Airport. “We’ve got a Pregnant Guppy in, you’ve got to come and get some pictures of it,” he says.

Pregnant Guppy three-quarter

This was one big-headed plane…

Being a bit of a plane nerd at the time, I knew all about the Pregnant Guppy. It was a version of the Boeing Stratocruiser airliner, on which the first two thirds of the fuselage had been blown up like a balloon to create a cavernous cargo space. The idea for this ridiculous looking plane was originally NASA’s, for carrying bits of Saturn 5 rockets about, but by this time one was being used by Airbus to carry bits of planes between the various factories. Its regular beat was Manchester so one turning up at Gatwick was very unusual.

On asking dad how I would be able to get to the plane to photograph it, he replied “meet me under the terminal in half an hour.” So having grabbed my camera and charged down the useful footpath that went from our housing estate all the way to the airport, 30 minutes later I was under the terminal (in those days Gatwick only had one…).

Guppy plane fron

From the front this plane was even more dramatic…

Dad duly drew up in one of the huge tugs they used for towing aircraft and told me to hop in. Whereupon we headed for the security gate, he waved a bit of paper at the people in the booth, up went the barrier and suddenly we were airside, I getting a very different view of the airport as we drove down a row of aircraft parked at their standards.

Later I would learn that the bit of paper was an authorisation form claiming that I was on a familiarisation visit prior to joining British Airways Ground Operations! My much-missed dad did sail close to the wind on occasions…

The Guppy was parked at the furthest end of the airport and having dodged taxiing planes while driving over to it, even dad knew it would be pushing his luck to let me out onto the tarmac. So he simply dropped the window of the tug and drove round the Guppy a couple of times while I took pictures.

Gatwick tug

Of course once we had the Guppy pics in the bag dad was happy to let me out to capture the clever things his tug’s cab could do…

Once back home, I wondered what to do with the pics. Then I remembered a new local free newspaper had launched in Reigate, just five miles away, and according to the freelance photographers’ newsletter I subscribed to it paid for pictures – very unusual for a local paper!

Money game

So I printed off a couple of shots and popped them in the post. The paper was called The Independent – the national newspaper was still five years in the future – and when the next issue came out on the following Thursday my pictures were in it. Even better, a week or two later a cheque for £12.50 arrived in the post! Remarkably in today’s money that’s just under £50…

Guppy story

I make the press…

Bouyed by this, I soon found another picture story, a friend of dad’s who had a steam roller, and the Indy used that too. Then I got a phone call from the editor, my first contact with John Woodward, an old-style newsman who later I would consider one of the most formative influences on my career. He asked me if I might be available to carry out commissioned photo jobs on evenings, and of course I didn’t refuse.

So began an enjoyable time of photographing prize givings, awards ceremonies, theatre photo calls – later that year I had my first experience of attending the press night for a play at our local theatre, rushing home, developing the film, running off a print and delivering it to the paper in time to catch the deadline the following day. Piece of cake in today’s digital world, slightly more involved back then…

A year or so later the Indy decided it was established enough to employ a photo-journalist. Of course I applied and had an interview with John that was so positive I basically waited for the letter giving me a start date.

Thanks but no…

Instead I got an apologetic letter from John, and unlike most rejection letters it actually sounded sincere. They’d employed another applicant who had previous newspaper experience, and in such a small team as was at the Indy that was understandable. “I hope we can still use you in the future,” John added; “but obviously now we have our own photographer that will be less likely…”

I wasn’t having that. I think the new photographer was called Jane Wilson – I started working out the jobs she was likely to be going on, and I found other jobs and sent them in on spec. I also had my entire family and friends keeping an ear open for stories, which I also sent in.

Inde front page

Tree plantings, plaque unveilings, I photographed all the big events…

Within months I was effectively Jane’s deputy – whenever she went on holiday I had a very busy couple of weeks! And then one day another letter came from John; “Jane Wilson has today submitted her notice and will be leaving in two weeks. If you still want to join us please get in touch with me as soon as possible…”

So in May 1985, my media career began as a photo journalist at the soon to be Reigate Post & Independent (the national newspaper was on its way…). Not a photographer – though that was my prime role, as the team was so small I was expected to muck in on everything. Just how small I realised in the first week when the chief reporter went on holiday and the paper was basically put together by John and myself…

By now the Indy was part of a major regional publisher, the Croydon Advertiser Group. Because I could clearly write, John decided I needed some qualifications and put me on the in-house NCTJ training scheme. Over the next few years I worked under six chief reporters – like any local paper the Indy was basically a staging post for ambitious young journos on their way to something bigger and better.

When the sixth chief reporter resigned John called me into his office and asked me to apply for her job. Instead of following a career path as a photographer, my career turned in a slightly different direction as a journalist. And the rest, as they say…

Reigate Independent front page

As the credit shows, we did it all on the Indy…

Ocean’s Obsession…


Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The ShortAxle Blog returns! It’s been far too long and I intend to do something about it as I need somewhere to express my personal stuff in the way I can’t do in my various freelance activities. Expect more regular posts in future and a new look to the blog will be coming soon too. But at the start a warning – this first entry is a bit of an epic…

Quite a time to return after a weekend of pure sporting overload for this horsepower-biased writer. On Sunday I really needed one of those multi-monitor director’s consoles, trying to keep pace with the British Touring Cars from Croft (forced to miss being there this year due to other commitments), FIA WTCR from the Villa Real street track (with the inevitable mother and father of a shunt), NASCAR from the Sonoma road course, IndyCar at Road America, plus a World Cup football match in which England did rather better than anyone could have hoped…

My greatest attention yesterday, however, focused on a nine-month long race, involving just seven competing teams, with no horsepower and top speeds of around 30mph. You see, The Hague was the venue for a nail-biting conclusion to the 2017-2018 Volvo Ocean Race.


An exclusive race, but also an intense one, only for a special breed of sailor… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

The what? Yes, three weeks ago that would have been my reaction. I’m no sailor – I can’t even swim – and previously I have had no interest in the sport. Many years ago I watched an interesting documentary on the America’s Cup, followed it for a while but then lost interest, and on a couple of previous car launches I have had a ride on a catamaran in the Mediterranean and crewed with round-the-world sailing star Ellen MacArthur in the Solent. But the sport hadn’t exactly floated my boat…

And then the Volvo Ocean Race scheduled the stopover between legs 9 and 10 of an 11-leg schedule in Cardiff, and Volvo invited a few journalists down to see what it was about. There was some test-driving of the Ocean Race limited edition of the V90 Cross Country involved, and a chance for Volvo to promote its ‘Turn the Tide on Plastic’ campaign fighting against plastic in the oceans, which thankfully the world now appears to be taking seriously. But basically, this was a Jolly – rare these days, at least in my bit of the motoring journalism world. So I gladly accepted.

By the time I arrived at the dockside in Cardiff, however, I was slightly perturbed. The original invite had included ‘Transfer to M32 Catamaran for a short sail’ which sounded okay. Yet the final instructions told us to ensure we arrived with soft-soled, preferably white, footwear, sun cream and the like because while no sailing experience was required we would be ‘part of the crew in a competitive race’ that ‘may not always be an easy ride’…


Dongfeng at speed in the final leg. Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So what is the Volvo Ocean Race? It is basically what was once the Whitbread Round the World Race, and does what it says on the tin – the latest version started in Alicante last October, headed to Cape Town in South Africa, then across the Southern Ocean where the waves can reach 150ft high, to Melbourne in Australia. From there the route went up to Hong Kong and China, back down to Auckland in New Zealand, more Southern Ocean to Ilatjai in Brazil, up to Newport, USA, across the Atlantic to Cardiff, around the top of the UK to Gothenburg and finally a sprint to The Hague.

The sheer expense of such an undertaking ensured just seven crews would attempt the race, all in identical Volvo 65 monohull boats (i.e not the high-tech catamarans that are increasingly the norm these days). These boats really were identical, this a sailing version of a one-make series with dire consequences we were told even if you cut a rope shorter without permission…

The crews featured the great and the good of the sailing world – former Ocean Race competitors, Olympians and America’s Cup stalwarts, three of them seeking, ultimately unsuccessfully to claim sailing’s ‘Triple Crown’ by adding success in this race to America’s Cup victory and Olympic Gold. Interestingly how many crew were on each boat depended on their gender, the emphasis on encouraging as many women as possible to join the men on board. All-male crews could number no more than seven, an equally mixed crew 10, all women 11. And at least two crew members must be aged under 30.

At Cardiff we were first shown around Volvo’s ‘own’ boat, Turn the Tide on Plastic, hosted by navigator Brian Thompson – his CV includes being the first British sailor to break the round-the-world record twice, and becoming the first to sail non-stop around the world four times. We were also given an insight to what it is really like to be an Ocean Race competitor by Annie Lush, a London 2012 Olympian who had started this year’s race with Team Brunel.


Turn the Tide on Plastic navigator Brian Thompson at his station deep in the not very deep bowels of the boat. Photo: Andrew C

First impression – these boats are tiny! As the name suggests they are 65 feet long at the point where they sit on the water, and this means pretty cramped conditions. This was especially true below where Brian’s navigator station and two laptops were squeezed between tiny bunks for off-duty sleeping, with just the carbon-fibre hull between you and the slapping waves. Not that there was much sleeping, according to Annie. “You are supposed to have four hours on deck and four off, but it doesn’t really work like that,”  she told us.

“In your four hours off you are doing other jobs, just not required on deck. In a good 24 hours you will maybe get three lots of two hours’ sleep. When it’s bad maybe two hours total if you are lucky, and that can happen for several days in a row.”

Sleep deprivation is the worst of what are extreme conditions, wet, hot, cold, and Annie added that there is generally a lot of illness on board. No surprise really as bunks and sleeping bags are shared, exhausted crew climbing into them in their wet clothes – just one change of clothes is allowed on board.

Leg 3, Cape Town to Melbourne, day 01, start on board Brunel. Photo by Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race. 10 December, 2017.

Annie Lush in action on the Team Brunel boat in December 2017, before she was injured. Photo: Ugo Fonolla/Volvo Ocean Race

As for food, no weight-adding tins are allowed so it’s all freeze-dried Pot Noodle-type rations, which Annie reckoned tasted like chicken curry no matter what it said on the packet. Proper washing is out, of course, and as for the toilet facilities – you really don’t want to know…

“At the end of nine months you can barely walk but you are still trying to race each other,” Annie added. “The team become your family, you know more about them than you ever want to…”

Annie is indicative of what drives the sailors in this race. Yes, she started in the Team Brunel boat, but by the time the fleet reached Cardiff she was reduced to an on-shore role, having been hit by a freak wave in the Southern Ocean, breaking two bones in her foot and one in her back. As they were in the middle of nowhere she had to spend five more days on the boat – the first two she was down below dosed up on painkillers, the rest she was back on deck, trying to carry on her duties and convince everyone she had only sprained her back. “The doctors when we reached Melbourne were not impressed,” she smiled…


Took me a while to twig why this notice was mounted upside-down… Photo: Andrew C

“In the Southern Ocean the closest person to you is in space – if say you don’t sort out a capsize, no-one is coming to get you,” she added, and as if to prove that point then played us a video, showing just what conditions were like down there. Most remarkable in this viewer’s opinion are the waves that can routinely crash over the boat when conditions are at their most competitive, all the crew on deck getting routinely soaked by walls of water every 15 seconds or so…

At the end of the film, a short note dedicated it to John Fisher, Annie quietly explaining that he had been caught by a wave that knocked him off the Scallywag team boat, in an area of the Southern Ocean where even with full protective gear you would only survive 10 minutes. Sadly a full search failed to find him.


You can’t have any qualms about getting wet when taking part in this race… Photo by Martin Keruzore/Volvo Ocean Race.

So why do it? Annie was clear in her reasons; “It’s a sporting event but a lot more, adventuring and racing at the same time, it’s epic…”

Remarkably after that, I found myself not more nervous about going out on a boat, but surprisingly enthused – while absolutely convinced that even if I was a lot fitter (and could swim) crewing in the race itself is something I could never do.

Our Pro-Am challenge would not involve catamarans but the actual Ocean 65s contesting the main event, and would see the seven boats compete against each other in two 40-minute races in Cardiff Bay. Each would be manned by six of the regular crew plus 10 guests, who would fill the missing crew roles – yes, we were expected to work.


The jostling at the start is manic… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race

Our journalist party was split up and colleague Robin Roberts and I found ourselves assigned to the Chinese boat of Dongfeng Racing, which just happened to be leading the race as they reached Cardiff. Our fellow guests included a father and daughter team of knowledgeable sailors and several from the boat’s home country, while in charge for the day was not skipper Charles Caudrelier but watch captain Daryl Wislang, a character of a New Zealander and a veteran of four Volvo Ocean races.

It’s difficult to sum up my impression of the race except that it was the most epic experience I have had in a long while – from the manic jostling of the boats before the start, missing each other by inches as they tacked around trying to be as close as possible, but not over, the line when the starter pressed go, through the speed we zipped along the water at what appeared a crazy leant-over angle (until I saw the angles they reach in the real race), to the amazing way in which the boats turned on a dime round the markers at each end of the course.


How far over? The horizon is level… Photo: Andrew C

It was truly exhilarating as we fought our way to third at the finish of our race, and was followed by an equally fascinating close-up view of the action from a rib (a high-speed powered inflatable). We were transferred to this at sea, and then zipped in and out of the boats watching the other half of our guest party help take Dongfeng to victory in the second race.

Yes it was a superb day out but as my family will testify it also had a lasting effect – in the three weeks since they have got somewhat bored of my constant mentions of the Ocean Race, my religious following of the live tracker on the website as the final stages of the race played out. One thing this event does extremely well is its media, each boat having an onboard photographer alongside the crew and employing drones and helicopters to provide endless photos, videos, live reports, TV shows – keeping in touch has been very easy. Have a look here to see what I mean.

After Cardiff, of course, Dongfeng was very much ‘my’ boat. And going into the final short, 700-mile leg between Gothenburg and The Hague it was in a remarkable three-way tie at the head of the points with rivals MAPFRE and Team Brunel – it would be winner-takes-all at the finish.

And in the end a tactical decision at the end of the penultimate day, which saw Dongfeng choose to take a path close to the shore of Holland while its rivals searched for stronger winds further out to sea, saw my boat come home first to a rapturous reception – just 17 minutes in front of MAPFRE, after nine months and 45,000 nautical miles of racing…


Final sprint to the final line – and success for Dongfeng. Photo: Jen Edney/Volvo Ocean Race

Leg 11 from Gothenburg to The Hague. Finish at The Hague. 24 June, 2018.

Reward for nine months of effort… Photo: Ainhoa Sanchez/Volvo Ocean Race

So if you’ve reached here, well done for sticking with me! My name is Andrew Charman and yes I am now a passionate fan of the Volvo Ocean Race. My only regret is that I got into this nine-month long event three weeks before it finished, with three years to wait before the next one…


Not my comfort zone but you know what? I didn’t care… Photo: Pedro Freitas/Volvo Ocean Race