Guardians of the Sea

 

The Coastwatch Volunteers keeping the waters around Cornwall safe.

It’s peaceful scene. The sea off Rame Head in South East Cornwall is turquoise blue and flat calm. At least a dozen yachts unfurling their blinding white sails are tacking off the headland in the light breeze. On the beaches at Whitsand bay, picnickers are enjoying the sun and surfers are catching the rollers that sweep in from the Atlantic.

Perched at the top of the cliff, overlooking the bay, there is a small white painted building. Outside the union flag is flapping in the breeze and from one of the large picture windows Sally Loynes surveys the scene through a telescope. “It’s got a red spinnaker and a dark hull, I’ll put him down as a sloop,” She writes down the yacht’s details in a log, in what the National Coastwatch Institution calls, the spot, plot and report system which aims to identify craft and their location. In the event of an emergency or accident, this information can then be used in assisting the rescue services.

Sally has been a volunteer at the Rame Head Coastwatch Station for two years and along with 65 other watchkeepers, works in shifts to operate the station from 8 am to 8 pm (5 pm in the winter) 365 days a year.

The station was formerly a Coastguard lookout, which closed in 1992 due to a government reorganization of the service. “The building had been empty for 6 years before the institution took over and is now one of 13 dotted around the Cornish coast”, explains Sally.

The Watchstation always has a least two volunteers on duty and in summer the waters around the headland can be very busy indeed. “The station is equipped with telescopes, a radar, up to date charts and volunteers monitor many VHF radio channels using 3 radios, all of which help us keep a check on not only larger vessels but the hundreds of surfers, divers and canoeists who use the coast around here” explains Sally.

 

Last year, the station logged over 21,000 craft that passed by Rame Head, everything from huge container ships to tiny dinghies, but fortunately there were only four serious incidents that required calling in the rescue services. “ The most common emergencies occur when there is an engine failure or perhaps in high wind, a yacht’s mast might snap or simply a surfer has gone out to far and gets exhausted,” says Sally.

 

“Anything we see that we think might develop into an incident we inform Brixham, which is the closest Coastguard control centre” explains Sally. “Last year I spotted a windsurfer out to sea who kept falling off his board and was obviously getting tired and was in distress. I immediately rang through the situation and within 20 minutes the lifeboat arrived. I later found out that the guy was suffering from hypothermia and if he had stayed out for much longer he would have been close to death.”

 

Sometimes much larger craft get into difficulty and station manager Peter Creber recalls the last wreck that occurred along the coast in 2001. “The Kodima was a Maltese registered ship that got into trouble 20 miles south and slowly drifted into shore in heavy seas. Luckily there was no loss of life but because we were on hand, we were able to give a blow-by-blow report on the situation and liaise with the emergency services. Unfortunately the vessel eventually went aground and shed her cargo of timber, some of which was washed up on the beach. In the true spirit of Cornish wreckers, several garden sheds in the area were built with the timber from the Kodima”, laughs Peter.

 

These types of incident clearly illustrate the importance of Sally’s job and although technology has improved safety at sea, a computer cannot see a distress flare or a capsized rowing boat. That’s why volunteers like Sally, who operate 40 stations throughout the UK, were instrumental in assisting in 703 incidents around the coast of England and Wales in 2008, helping to save countless lives.

Protection of the coastline dates back to the 17th century when smugglers were losing the government a fortune in revenue by bringing contraband into the county. The humble cup of tea was a luxury back in those days and could be bought in Europe for a 1/6th of the price is was in Britain, so the long expanse of rocky, virtually uninhabited coast in the Cornwall was particularly suited to bringing in not only tea but items such as brandy, gin, rum and tobacco. With few revenue men on patrol, the concealed coves and caves provided perfect places in which to hide the illicit goods.

In 1809, the loss to national revenue through smuggling was so great that the government of the day set up the Preventative Water Guard which over time took on more responsibility, amalgamated with other organizations and eventually became the Coastguard Service. However, in the 1980s advances in radar and radio communication made using vessels at sea much safer and visual watches were no longer deemed necessary and the service was reorganised which meant lookouts gradually closed down and were left empty.

 

However an incident in 1994 brought home the importance of coastal lookouts when two fishermen lost their lives in rough seas off the Cornish coast just below the then recently closed Coastguard station at Bass Point on the Lizard. After the tragedy, local people were amazed to find that the station was no longer manned and set about raising money to change the situation. Consequently, the station was reopened in the same year and the National Coastwatch Institution was born.

 

 “The problem is that not everyone has a radar and radio especially recreational craft like jet skis and obviously surfboards have no way of communication if they get in to trouble” says Sally “We estimate that over 60% of craft on the water have no back up. We try to pick out a tangible difference to identify craft; the colour of the hull, the sail number or sometimes even the colour of the sailor’s eyes, and keep a watch on them until they disappear out of view when watchkeepers further up the coast take over”

 

Relying totally on donations from the public, it costs the institute around £18,000 to set up a Watchstation and around £3,500 a year to run. “Fortunately the Mount Edgecumbe estate, who owns the building here at Rame, charge us a peppercorn rent and sometime they forget to send us the utility bills”, laughs Sally. “So we are able to continue running the station and replace equipment with donations that people generously give.”

 

Coastwatch volunteers are rarely mentioned in dispatches but it is their watchful gaze that finds people in trouble and as Sally emphasises,  “Most people don’t know we are here.”

A keen yachtswoman herself, Sally says, “I love my job here and as I love sailing I feel it’s a way that I can put something back, and hope that sailors of all kinds find it comforting to know that someone is quietly watching out for them.”