The watchman of the Solent

Watch manager David Wiliams, centre, leads the team in the Coastguard operation room at Lee-on-the-Solent.   Picture: Steve Reid (112867-691)

Watch manager David Wiliams, centre, leads the team in the Coastguard operation room at Lee-on-the-Solent. Picture: Steve Reid (112867-691)

The Sling Swing class.  Picture: Ian Hargreaves

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Only routine radio calls break up the talk, laughter and general buzz of an office going about its daily business.

And then an alarm punctures all sound and the chat stops dead.

Beyond the window of the Lee-on-the-Solent Coastguard operations room all looks calm. But somewhere out in the unpredictable sea, somebody is sending a mayday – the most urgent of distress calls.

Watch assistant Brian Taylor

Watch assistant Brian Taylor

And their lives could be dependent on the people in this room and what they do next.

Watch leader David Williams and his team are manning the Solent ops room and until now they’ve been taking standard radio calls from vessels in the 3,000 square miles of sea and coast that is their responsibility.

But weather reports and technical advice are immediately put on the back burner. The team burst into far more urgent activity trying to locate what could be a stricken vessel.

‘When the transmission was sent it should also have given the identity and position of the vessel. But the vessel’s equipment may have been faulty,’ David explains later.

To make matters more complicated another boat has also heard the call but seems to be giving its own co-ordinates to the Coastguard.

In all the confusion the ops room team go about solving the problem with the calm of those who’ve been drinking camomile tea.

Only very occasionally does David let his composure drop with a grimace or a mutter as he and the team locate the vessel efficiently and quickly.

Someone plots the coordinates on one of the big charts in the room, contact is made to the French Coastguard in case the call has been made far into the English Channel and lifeboats are deployed for searches – just in case the vessel that also reported the call is closer and has picked up more information.

But David holds back from scrambling the helicopter. Something is telling him to contact Cowes Week control first.

Sure enough, the signal has been sent accidentally from a yacht in the marina and only scant information has come through, possibly because of interference or faulty equipment.

But it’s a good illustration of what takes place in the ops room – fast and efficient communication with everyone taking a role using radio, touchscreen computers to contact lifeboat stations and other emergency organisations and good old fashioned instruction. At one point David stands at the head of the room and stops everyone for information and a quick action plan.

‘We can never assume anything to be the case but we use a lot of local knowledge,’ he says afterwards. ‘There was some confusion so we had to do some physical searches. The other vessel that picked up the signal could have been very close to the distress call and receiving more information than us,’ he says, eager to indicate that it was good they tried to help.

‘In a perfect world you begin with all the information you need but obviously it isn’t an ideal world and sometimes the information is very scarce. We have to build a picture very quickly. I think you have to understand your district. They call it local knowledge and it’s becoming very unfashionable.

‘But it’s essential to know all the danger areas and what’s going on. We could have ended up with a massive search of hundreds of square miles.’

The watches at the Solent Coastguard centre keep a vigilant ear on radio traffic covering the UK’s busiest waters.

And in the annual racing event, Cowes Week, the traffic increases dramatically. On the Monday of this year’s event, one watch dealt with 32 incidents, the majority of which were Cowes Week-related. They included a number of man overboards, dismastings and groundings.

At one point the watch on duty received four maydays almost simultaneously.

And also on that day, there were three young boys cut off by the tide who had to be rescued by lifeboat and two missing children who were thankfully found very quickly.

Watch officer Matt West found himself dealing with several stricken vessels, three people in the water and radio traffic coming from five other yachts who were near enough to help. He was also communicating with the lifeboat services.

He says: ‘You could be on a very ordinary call and then a second later you’re dealing with something really urgent. You just prioritise, keep your composure and do your job, because if you let them, your emotions could be all over the place.’

The team are keen to point out that the organisers of Cowes Week and other big events have excellent safety procedures but any time there are people and boats at sea, there’s a risk.

And that’s when the ops room staff become the guardians of the water.

Lee Fisher, Solent Coastguard district operations manager, says: ‘People see rescues on TV and in the papers. But what is never really brought to their attention is the work that the people behind the scenes do, co-ordinating our responders and the other emergency services. Whether it involves one person in a kayak or 100 people from a ferry, the range and scale of things is just unbelievable.’

The team in the ops room have a wealth of experience at sea and in search and rescue roles. David has been a boat builder, delivered yachts around the South China Sea and been dealing with Coastguard emergencies for 14 years.

And that has obviously brought its share of triumphs and tragedies.

‘It gets easier but sometimes you go through quite bad periods,’ says David. ‘I had a bad patch last month with a fatality every day. My rock is that it wasn’t anything where we could have affected the outcome. We were involved but it was a case of a body being found or someone jumping off Beachy Head. It was all very decisive but it’s impossible not to be affected by these cases.

‘But then I think to myself about the many incidents where people have been successfully rescued and they’re now walking around with their families and getting on with their lives.’

It’s a reassuring thought for the people who work tirelessly to provide a reassuring presence for those venturing out on the erratic sea.

THE FUTURE

The government has announced a massive overhaul of the national Coastguard service, including the closure of some stations around the country.

There is a plan for state-of-the-art operations centre to be built in either the Portsmouth or Southampton area and there have been calls to keep it local. The strongest calls have been for it to be based at HMS Daedalus in Gosport, not far from the current centre.

But as it is likely to oversee several sub-centres across the UK, there have been concerns that those in the supercentre could end up taking calls from anywhere in the country.

MARITIME AND COASTGUARD AGENCY

If there’s an emergency at sea or on the coast, the search and rescue mission will be co-ordinated by HM Coastguard.

And sometimes the service, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, will help other organisations like fire, ambulance and police with inland emergencies too.

Co-ordinating the search and rescue in the UK’s waters is a mammoth task. The region as a whole covers some 1.25 million square nautical miles of sea and over 10.5 thousand nautical miles of coastline (a nautical mile is slightly longer than a land mile)

Currently 19 maritime rescue coordination centres bring together resources from other services and the Coastguard’s own volunteers.

The Solent Coastguard area stretches from just east of Christchurch at the Dorset border to Beachy Head in East Sussex and half way out into the English Channel.

Lee Fisher is Solent Coastguard district operations manager. He’s in charge of the rescue centre, equipment and staff and responsible operationally for the helicopter flights.

A great deal of his work involves working with other organisations to come up with emergency response plans. Emergency services never work in isolation and must have plenty of communication with fire, ambulance, police, the RNLI and other lifeboat and voluntary services and port authorities and harbour masters.

He says: ‘I’m chairman of the search and rescue committee for Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and we mirror that in Sussex. We bring together rescue organisations to talk about incidents and how we learn from them. All these organisations in an emergency contribute and we have to come together to understand the area and the capability of the resources we have.’

Marine emergency plans are also drawn up with organisations like ferry companies and the oil refinery at Fawley.

The Coastguard has also organised exercises, including a staged rescue at Hurst Point near Lymington.

The organisation has its own volunteers who specialise in mud, cliff and sea rescue. There are bases across the region, including Lymington, Southampton, Hill Head, Portsmouth, Hayling and Selsey.

Hilary Durkan is sector manager for the Southampton area. She says: ‘These people are vital. For the ops room they’re the eyes and ears on the ground. And they have the experience and equipment to carry out more successful rescues than ever.

‘We couldn’t function as a search and rescue organisation without them.’

The centres also take in and safely dispose of expired distress flares and offer information and advice.

There’s safety advice on the agency’s website dft.gov.uk/mca

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