Can Anyone Rescue the UK Coastguard?

Published 13 years ago, updated 6 years ago

From the

HM Coastguard is used by mariners the world over and has saved countless lives at sea. So why is the UK government intent on threatening its work?

Last summer, I was walking on the coastal path, when a man ran towards me. “Has your phone got reception?” he demanded. “Can you call the coastguard? My friend’s down there in a boat, he’s hurt his leg, he needs rescuing.” We called the coastguard and explained where we were. A lifeboat crew duly picked up his friend. The crisis was over in no time at all.

The summer season has started again, and all around the UK’s coastline, the coastguard is getting busy. Britain has 19,491 miles of coastline at high tide, and every mile of it, as well as many miles beyond, is guarded by people operating upwards of eight different forms of communications equipment, ready to deal with any maritime or coastal emergency – big or small.

The coastguard is an almost invisible service, taken for granted when it is needed and ignored when it is not. Last week, when transport secretary Philip Hammond indicated that the government may be about to perform a U-turn on its proposed huge cuts to the service, it was largely only people in areas that would be affected who even knew what he was talking about.

In December 2010, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) presented the government with proposals that, if accepted, would have changed the coastguard service beyond recognition, closing half of its 18 stations and leaving only three open 24 hours a day. The safety ramifications were enormous, and yet the issue has received a fraction of the national attention the proposed sell-off of the forests did.

I live in Falmouth, Cornwall, home to the coastguard station that, at one extreme, arranged the rescue of the man at the base of the cliff, and, at the other, single-handedly fulfils the UK’s international obligation to play its part in policing the oceans. Local feeling has been running high. Truro and Falmouth’s Conservative MP, Sarah Newton, recently presented parliament with a petition signed by 7,500 people, or a third of the town’s population.

Distress calls from all over the globe are directed to Falmouth. Its 27 staff pick up emergency beacon distress signals, locate the vessel in trouble, and immediately get to work looking for a way to get people out of the water. Its headquarters are, says Newton, the “real life Thunderbirds base”. And this responsibility is scheduled to be removed under the MCA’s proposals.

Local residents Mike and Iris Clelford can attest to the coastguards’ skills. In 2008, they were sailing their yacht, Brilliance, from South Georgia in the South Atlantic to Cape Town. Out of the shipping lanes, far from any other vessel, and in freezing conditions, disaster struck. “We’d been in a storm,” Mike Clelford recalls. “The rigging snapped, the mast was about to come down, and I think we’d also hit a growler [a very small iceberg]. We were taking on water.” They attempted to raise various coastguards by radio, but the boat was too far from land. They set off an emergency position-indicating radio beacon. As a last-ditch attempt, they managed to send an email, over the radio, to their local coastguard, 8,000 miles away, in Falmouth.

Within hours, the Falmouth coastguard had located an enormous ship, the Wafrah, that was able to divert to pick them up. It was 30 hours away.

As they were expecting the mast to snap and pierce the hull of the yacht at any moment, and since they were surrounded by icebergs, the Clelfords were far from “saved”. They waited, expecting to go down with the yacht.

Their emails were picked up in an unobtrusive building, dwarfed by its giant aerial, just below Pendennis Castle. It is a historic spot: the castle was built by Henry VIII as part of the chain of coastal artillery fortresses. The coastguard station sits quietly in its strategic position, opposite an ice-cream van, arranging maritime rescues in the 660,000 square miles that it covers, and far beyond. Its staff are forbidden from speaking to the media, but the station’s former manager, Simon Rabett, is under no such restriction.

“Falmouth is arguably the best coastguard station in the world,” he says. “All over the world, sailors talk about it. Ministers, and search and rescue teams, come to see how it’s done. They take what Falmouth does home, and put it in place as best practice.”

It seems odd, then, that the head of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Sir Alan Massey, decided that Falmouth’s 24-hour cover should be cut to daylight hours only, its staff reduced to 10, and its global responsibilities removed altogether and handed over to a super-station on the Solent that does not yet exist. Massey has said that “what Falmouth does on international coordination depends on the kit, and that’s moveable”.

“There isn’t a training course for what Falmouth does,” counters Rabett. “And trying to transfer what they do is dangerous.”

Safety, of course, is the overriding concern of the campaign against the cuts. Suggestions that, under the proposals, response times to emergency calls could be increased by 10 minutes – potentially the difference between life and death – were denied. However, there are fears that with just three main coastguard centres, the local knowledge that enables coastguards all over the country to pinpoint a location within seconds, often based on the name of a campsite or a landmark, would be lost.

Meanwhile, many of the UK’s other maritime safety services are looking at an uncertain future. The Air Rescue Co-ordination Centre at RAF Kinloss is to be re-sited, while the four tugs that help cargo ships in trouble (with potentially toxic cargoes) are to be scrapped. Organisations responsible for firefighting at sea will be terminated, and the reception centre for distress beacon alerts re-located. All this at the same time as coastguard reorganisation creates the potential for error that could be disastrous.

The coastguard is, many agree, due for a smaller-scale upheaval. “We are aware that the UK coastguard has too many stations,” says Rabett. There are, however, less drastic ways to deal with it. “You keep Falmouth, and keep the international responsibility there. Mariners all over the world have Falmouth as quick-dial 1 on their satellite phones – everything from big ships, to small yachts, to rowing boats. Let’s not lose that.”

The campaign in Falmouth has been mirrored in coastal communities throughout the country. In Milford Haven, Dennis O’Connor has become a figurehead for the movement against the changes, tweeting as @coastguard_SOS and keeping the issue in the public eye. He warns that “serious failings will occur if these proposals go ahead. This will undoubtedly end with tragic consequences.”

As the enormous Wafrah drew closer to the Clelfords, they and the ship’s captain worried about how they were going to scale what was effectively a building many storeys high to board it. Then the Falmouth coastguard came back with news that a South Korean vessel had been blown off course by the storms, bringing it close enough to pick them up. It appeared on the horizon. The Brilliance was left to sink, and they were taken aboard the Korean vessel for 21 days, before being dropped off in Sri Lanka and making their way home to Falmouth. “We would not be here without the Falmouth coastguard,” Clelford says. “Without a shadow of a doubt, we owe them our lives.”

With the consultation period for written submissions closed, the issue has been passed to the transport select committee. The fact that Hammond has now indicated that there is likely to be a rethink does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that the campaigners are victorious.

“This is only the latest twist in a long campaign,” says O’Connor.



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