The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Eyes along the coast – National Coastwatch Institution

Alan Illingworth has been finding out about the work of the National Coastwatch Institution in Dorset

The Peveril Point lookout

In 1994, a North Sea pilot called Captain Tony Starling Lark was boarding a ship in an easterly gale at Brixham in Devon. ‘If I fall over the side, at least the coastguard lookout on Berry Head will see me,’ he joked. ‘Oh no they won’t,’ he was told. ‘That was closed a couple of years ago.’ Captain Starling Lark, who had helped found the Sea Safety Group (SSG) to make mariners in different types of vessels aware of each others’ problems and requirements, was horrified, and he was spurred into action when shortly afterwards, a fishing boat went down with the loss of two lives within sight of the abandoned lookout at Bass Point, on Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula. In October 1994, a public meeting organised by SSG found enough local support to re-open the Bass Point lookout with volunteer watchkeepers, and so the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) was born.
The government decision to close coastguard lookouts was based on a risk assessment which found that the cost of physically watching the coast was no longer justified, given the improvement in electronic aids such as radar, VHF radio and the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Most NCI stations use this equipment, but there is no substitute for the ‘human eyeball, mark 1’ and the volunteers of NCI play an essential role in the network that keeps Britain’s coast and inshore waters safe for commercial and recreational users. Put briefly, their job is to watch for any problems or potential dangers and to report them to the Coastguard, to respond to any request for assistance from the Coastguard, and to log vessels that pass within a certain distance of the shore so that in the event of an incident, the background can be properly investigated.
NCI members come from all walks of life and many of them have had no previous maritime connection. Because of the need to be available on weekdays, a high proportion are retired, but many younger people fit NCI involvement round their work commitments. About fifteen per cent of watchkeepers are women. Although it is a voluntary organisation, high standards of professionalism are expected and detailed training is given, typically over six months, but trainees can proceed at the pace with which they feel comfortable. ‘Doing something useful’ is the main reason for joining, but most watchkeepers would also quote the sociability of NCI: not just organised events, but the chance to chat to interesting colleagues during quiet moments of a watch.
Nationally, over 2000 volunteers put in almost 200,000 hours of watchkeeping a year. Last year they were involved in 304 major incidents, including 53 initiated by them that involved the launch of a lifeboat. Today there are 46 NCI stations, four of them in Dorset: at Peveril Point, Swanage; at St Alban’s Head, the southernmost point of the Isle of Purbeck; at Portland Bill; and the Lyme Bay station currently based at Hive Beach, Burton Bradstock.
The lookout at Peveril Point is perched just above the ledges, which can create a ferocious race. Kayakers like the white water over the ledges, while solo scuba divers setting off from the beach also need careful watching. Traffic in and out of the bay has to be logged, and recent incidents where the station has been able to help have included a broken-down speedboat drifting on to the ledges and a woman sitting on a bench above the beach who started to choke on her lunch. In the spring, the station opened a visitor centre in which some fifteen information boards explain not only the work of NCI but the history and natural history of the Point, the substantial costs being met by grants from a range of organisations.
St Alban’s Head is perhaps the most dramatically positioned station, 340 feet up on its lonely, windswept headland at the end of 1½ miles of rough track. The view (on a good day) from St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, all the way round the coast to Portland Bill, is stupendous. Here the main traffic is sailing yachts on passage, plus commercial fishing boats and recreational sea fishing and diving. Windsurfers and kayakers in Kimmeridge Bay are also within the station’s view. Watchkeepers here recently advised the coastguard of a tug pulling a 300-metre length of rigid pipe, with no apparent warning signs or lights, that would have done serious damage to any small vessel running into it.

The NCI station at St Alban’s Head is dramatically poised on the windswept cliff-top, with St Aldhelm’s Chapel and the former coastguard cottages behind (image: Gordon Macpherson)

Portland Bill was one of the earliest NCI stations, opened in 1996. It is the largest and best-equipped of the Dorset lookouts and is open the longest: 7 am to 7 pm in the summer, as its roster of some sixty watchkeepers allows three watches a day. Fishing boats, leisure craft and commercial shipping all pass here. The station is positioned next to the old Higher Lighthouse, once owned by Marie Stopes. Because it is set back from the sea, watchkeepers cannot see the inshore passage round the Bill, but a CCTV camera has recently been installed on the iconic red and white lighthouse which beams them pictures both of this hidden area and of the rocks of the Bill. The station is currently building a new training and meeting room.
Lyme Bay provides an interesting contrast as it is a young station, started only in 2010. At the moment it occupies a hut in the grounds of what used to be the Burton Cliff Hotel. Its next-door neighbour is singer Billy Bragg, who generously allows the station to plug into his electrical supply free of charge. The station is keen to move to more satisfactory premises but several ideas have run foul of planning issues; the latest proposal is for a purpose-built lookout on the western esplanade at West Bay, but the planning application has not been submitted yet. With just 28 watchkeepers, the station is open only from Friday to Monday, but there are 25 trainees and this is clearly a station with great potential.
NCI receives absolutely no financial help from government or other official sources. Every station must find from donations and fund-raising the £5000 or so that it costs each year. There is also a central organisation to which all stations contribute, and each must of course meet the exacting standards which ensure that it will never let down the other organisations in the search and rescue network; all the Dorset stations are proud holders of ‘Declared Facility Status’, which means that they measure up to these standards. But each station has a fair degree of autonomy and therefore its own individual character – just one of the attractions of this invaluable organisation, whose contribution has recently been recognised by the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service to the four Dorset stations. This is a rare and highly regarded honour in which Dorset and its coastwatchers can take great pride.

When HRH Princess Anne visited Portland Bill NCI, the watchkeepers were dealing with a genuine emergency incident

If you are interested in attending one of the stations for a ‘familiarisation watch’ with a view to becoming a volunteer, or if you would like to support the work of NCI financially, contact:
Peveril Point – 01929 422596 or 01929 425268.
St Alban’s Head – 01929 439220 or 07811 141503.
Portland Bill – 01305 860178 or 01305 837216.
Lyme Bay – 01308 482178 or 01308 482605.

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