The National Coastwatch Institution

(The Ears and Eyes along our Coasts)

The National Coastwatch Institution plan to open their 50th coastal station, to mark their 20th anniversary, in 2014. It will be based at Runton in north Norfolk. Many yachtsmen, and the majority of the general public, however, are unaware of the NCI and what their role is.

In these days of high technology and sophisticated systems, it may seem extraordinary to suggest that a watchful pair of eyes in the right place can sometimes be more valuable than an individual sitting behind an electronic screen in an inland co-ordination centre. But this is just what the National Coastwatch Institution has proved, time and time again.

What is it?

The NCI was set up in 1994 to re-establish a visual watch along UK coasts after the demise of many of the small Coastguard stations and it is an entirely voluntary organisation, assisting in the protection and preservation of life at sea. There are currently 49 NCI stations keeping watch around the shores of the British Isles at strategic points where an overturned boat, a distress flare or a sailor, fisherman or diver in trouble, might be spotted by the eyes of a watchkeeper, whereas a computer will be no help to them. These watchkeepers are the eyes and ears along our coasts, providing a listening watch in poor visibility, monitoring radio channels and trained to deal with emergencies.

How and Why was it set up?

In 1994 two fishermen lost their lives off the Cornish coast, directly below the recently closed Coastguard lookout. This tragic event inspired local people to open and restore a visual lookout station at Bass Point on the Lizard and this station marked the birth of the NCI. Since then stations have been set up from Rossall Point in the North-West, down through Wales, Devon and Cornwall, along the South Coast and up the East and North East coasts as far as Sunderland. These are manned by highly trained teams who are qualified to watch over their own particular area, whether it is a busy port, a seaside town or a particularly hazardous area of coastline.

Their Work

Each station is manned by a team of volunteers from all walks of life, who offer a wide range of skills and experience and who keep a daylight watch up to 365 days of the year. Stations are equipped with radar, telephones, telescopes and weather instruments as well as up to date charts and the organisation has close links with the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), the HM Coastguard and the search and rescue services. While the majority of their surveillance work is routine, most of the stations have been inspected and have “Declared Facility Status”, which means that they are treated as a resource qualified to assist in an emergency.

During each watch a log of all water-based activities is kept by the watchman on duty and weather conditions and sea states are sometimes requested by yachtsmen and fishermen before they put to sea or by sportsmen before embarking on their watersport activity. This potentially reduces the need for so many RNLI call-outs and MCA responses. The stations also observe those using the shoreline itself such as walkers, climbers and bathers. They provide a vital link with all the emergency services and serve as an emergency contact point on land for all those using the sea or shore.

How to become a NCI volunteer

While no previous experience is necessary to become a watchkeeper, all volunteers are issued with a Training Check List designed to ensure that they reach the required standard before keeping watches on their own. Their first few watches are spent getting to know the station and they will be paired with an experienced watchkeeper who will act as advisor and guide, assisting right through the training process until they become a fully certified watchkeeper. The training is normally geared to the individual’s level of previous knowledge, experience and background and the instruction is organised by the Station Manager or his Deputy. Regular assessments take place and retraining programmes are also held to ensure that good standards are maintained and that watchkeepers are up to date with the latest legislation and operating procedures. Volunteer watchkeepers are expected to carry out at least two watches per month on a regular basis, but there will also be “whole unit meetings” and fundraising events, as all the NCI’s funds must be raised by their own efforts.

Watchkeepers wear a uniform consisting of a dark blue sweater, white shirt and dark black or navy trousers. This makes them more easily recognisable to the general public and raises the awareness of the NCI.

The Future

As a charity, relying on volunteers, the future is dependent on the amount of funds the organisation can raise. New stations are increasing at a rate of about three per year, with the hope that there will be 90 stations operating along our coasts in ten years time. New stations are only opened if there is a specific need at a particular location and there must be potential for enough watchkeepers to man the station and for funds to be raised locally to maintain it.

As the NCI grows it will need to develop along more commercial lines, add more permanent staff and move toward more centralised fundraising, but they have no plans at the present time to construct new purpose-built lookouts if there are suitable buildings in a suitable location. Their reasoning is that if there are buildings in the right areas that are fit for purpose, the NCI have no problem with using them. This has resulted in lookouts operating from former coastguard lookouts, disused control towers and even beach shacks. The iconic Calshot NCI tower overlooks one of the busiest stretches of water in the country, the Solent between Southampton and the Isle of Wight, a Martello Tower houses the Felixstowe NCI, on the Lizard the NCI took over a disused military observation post, while the Morfa Bychan NCI, near Porthmadog in North Wales, operates from a caravan.

There are no immediate plans to extend the NCI’s work into Scotland or N. Ireland although there have been many expressions of interest from those regions. With their present resources there is enough work to do in England and Wales, but who knows what the future will bring. Hopefully, as public awareness increases, there will be more funds and volunteers to maintain and carry on the NCI’s very valuable work of being the eyes and ears helping to keep our coats safe.

Author – Dee White

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