How it all began
A tragedy in southwest Cornwall gave rise to what is currently one of the fastest growing members of the UK Search and Rescue (SAR) organisation.
In 1994, two fishermen drowned when their boat capsized near a Coastguard station on the Lizard which had closed some eighteen months earlier. Sadly, the fishermen’s fate passed unseen.
United by the tragedy, local people raised funds and re-opened the lookout at Bass Point, manning it with volunteer watchkeepers. National Coastwatch (NCI) was born.
Today NCI has 50 lookouts keeping watch over hundreds of miles of our coastline. It is self-financing and receives no government financial support. Money is raised through local fundraising initiatives, occasional bequests and grants and sales from an online shop.
The Charity is now 21 years old. It has reached an exciting yet critical stage in its development and must now plan and finance the next ten years of its expansion. This is especially important if it is to achieve its principal objective of being a truly national constituent of the UK Search and Rescue organisation.
Although run by volunteers, NCI lookouts are equipped, and watchkeepers are trained, to the highest standards to provide the assets and skills that meet the professional needs of our SAR partners.
The lookouts are manned by more some 2000 volunteers who, in the past year, have clocked up over 218,000 hours on duty, identifying and logging over half a million vessels and participating in more than 280 incidents.
In order to qualify, watchkeepers undergo extensive training in maritime subjects with extra emphasis on chartwork, spotting, plotting and reporting. They are also trained to work with Ordnance Survey maps.
Incidents do occur, often with little warning. When, for example, watchkeepers at St Alban’s Head arranged a fundraising Open Day on Sunday 3 June 2012, little did they know that a real emergency would unfold off the Dorset coast right in front of them.
They jumped into action when, at around 11.30, they spotted a distress flare from a yacht dismasted three miles out to sea. The helpless vessel was being swept by a strong tide towards the St Alban’s Head race which could well have capsized it.
The watchkeepers immediately alerted Portland Coastguard who called on a nearby yacht to help. At the same time, they diverted the Portland Search and Rescue helicopter, itself returning from another incident. Crowds thronged the cliff-top as the helicopter and yacht stood by the stricken boat right under the Head (see pic) until the Swanage lifeboat arrived and took her under tow. The yacht, a 24ft vessel with one person aboard, was towed into Poole Bay where another lifeboat took it to a harbour berth.
More recently, on 4 June 2014, NCI Calshot reported to Solent Coastguard that the ocean racing yacht Artemis Ocean Racing had become dismasted (see pic) on a bearing of 140 degrees, one nautical mile from the tower. The watch was requested by the coastguard to keep Artemis under observation while being attended by the race control boat and recovered up the channel towards Southampton.
NCI lookouts are equipped with powerful optics, weather stations, radar and AIS, plus VHF radios to enable a listening as well as a visual watch. And, to maintain their state of readiness, all stations participate in regular exercises involving other members of the SAR community, including the Coastguard, RNLI and rescue helicopters.
National Coastwatch has now been allocated a national licence by OFCOM for the use of VHF Channel 65. This dedicated channel will facilitate communications between NCI lookouts and seafarers on a variety of routine matters. Stations will be able to respond to requests from passing, as well as local sailing craft and fishing vessels for radio checks as well as actual weather and sea state conditions. They will also be able to provide on request information on a range of local facilities including, for example, local moorings, charted anchorages, water taxi contact details and local hazards.
Meeting the challenges ahead
To administer all this, the Charity has a Board of Trustees, national executive officers and a station manager and local committee at each lookout. All are volunteers who give freely of their time and expertise. This structure has brought NCI to where it is today but, to meet the challenges of the future, the Charity needs to evolve rapidly along more commercial lines.
The level of fundraising and profile of NCI needs to be elevated by forging relationships with companies and organisations that share its values and recognise the significance of what it does. These commercial partnerships will provide the wherewithal to expand National Coastwatch to cover further vulnerable areas of the coastline and, in doing so, firmly underscore NCI’s position as a vital element in the SAR organisation.
NCI in 2025
Over the next ten years, an average of two to three new strategically positioned stations will be opened each year, giving coverage in England, Wales and Scotland. Already a number of local authorities and organisations are keen for NCI to move into their areas. New stations will, however, be located strictly on the basis of need rather than opportunity.
When it comes to sea safety, there is simply no substitute for sharp eyes that can spot a flare from a dismasted yacht, a fishing boat with engine failure, a capsized dinghy, a child swept out on an airbed, a swimmer floundering out of their depth, or a fisherman on rocks who has failed to spot the advancing tide about to cut him off.
All these and many more are solid reasons why NCI must, and will continue to, expand its ability to assist in the protection and preservation of life at sea and along the UK coastline.
For further information about NCI, contact Richard Hews, Trustee and National PRO on 07774 108186 or visit www.nci.org.uk