The eyes of the sea, watching over Portsmouth Harbour

The National Coastwatch Institution’s volunteers watch over Portsmouth Harbour during daylight hours every day of the year except Christmas Day. Here station manager Chris Aps explains why they do the work they do.

Friday, 17th May 2019, 7:00 am
The view of Gunwharf Quays from the watch tower. Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-8881)

At the Gosport side of the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour sits the Signal Tower perched precariously 36ft up in Fort Blockhouse.

This for the moment is still MoD territory and is subject to their security.

The National Coastwatch Institution has 54 Stations dotted around the UK coastline with more than 2,400 volunteers. NCI Gosport is one of them

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Watchkeeper Peter Keepence, left, and senior watchkeeper Steve Tatford Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-8947)

and occupies the Signal Tower with the MoD’s blessing. It is clearly visible from most of the Portsmouth and Southsea side and of course from the ferries.

NCI Gosport has more than sixty unpaid volunteers, men and women from all walks of life. With the stunning view from the station their job is to keep a visual and radio watch of the Eastern Solent, The Harbour Approaches, Portsmouth Harbour itself, the visible coastline and beaches.

It is a big and busy area and a lot goes on both at sea and on the coast.

Portsmouth Harbour is a Naval base, commercial port, working harbour with many marinas and a huge number of leisure craft.

The view of Gunwharf from the watch tower. Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-8867)

At the height of the summer there may be over 1,500 boat movements in and out of the harbour.

Radio watch means monitoring five radio channels continuously, three belonging to HM Coastguard (including the Distress Channel 16), one for Portsmouth Harbour Control (Queen’s Harbour Master) and one dedicated to National Coastwatch.

This is Channel 65 and is the one that yachts call “Gosport NCI “for radio checks and weather information.

In the Signal Tower there are two Watchkeepers, or three if there is a trainee, and each do 3.5 hour shifts (watches). The station is manned during daylight hours for every day of the year except Christmas Day.

Watchkeeper Peter Keepence Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-8859)

There are two watches a day in the winter and three in the summer. Most Watchkeepers do two to three watches a month, which is a

sensible commitment. Between them last year they donated an impressive 6, 640 hours to the community.

This responsible job obviously requires training to get to qualified Watchkeeper standard. This is provided by an in-house training team. In addition all Watchkeepers have to attend a radio course to get their Short Range Certificates. On top of that the Station itself has to be assessed each year to check that it performs to operational requirements so it can remain a formal asset to HM Coastguard. That means Gosport Coastwatch reports directly to the Coastguard and as such is part of the large Search and Rescue family.

There is a wide range of binoculars and high-powered optics in the watch tower, which are essential. All vessels, however big or small are scrutinised and will be logged if there are issues which cause concern. Perhaps the crew are inappropriately dressed for the conditions, not wearing lifejackets, children on deck with a risk of falling in, possibly ropes dangling in the water

From left, station manager Chris Aps, senior watchkeeper Steve Tatford, watchkeeper Peter Keepence, and deputy station manager and Gail Rendle Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-7568)

risking the propeller and so on.

The movements of all commercial fishing vessels and foreign pleasure boats are always recorded. Kayaks and jet-skis too as they may get into trouble.

Watchkeepers also keep an eye on swimmers who may get caught out in the strong tidal streams near the harbour, tombstoners and jumpers from Victoria Jetty or Round Tower, anglers on the shore side rocks and any suspicious behaviour.

Nationally the NCI recorded well over 500 incidents in 2018, more than half initiated by NCI stations leading to the Coastguard tasking lifeboats to make a rescue. NCI Gosport recorded its fair share of incidents too. They ranged from the rescue of persons in the water from capsized kayaks and jet-skis, to involvement in the search for the tragic man-overboard from the I.O.W. ferry, St Cecilia, last summer.

The waters of Hamilton Bank just to the west of the Harbour entrance are very shallow near to the edge of the main channel following the massive dredging programme for the Elizabeth Class Carriers. It’s not unusual for yachts to go aground there.

So what do the Watchkeepers themselves say?

National Coastwatch Institution at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport Picture: Sarah Standing (100519-8939)

‘Until I joined Gosport Coastwatch I had no idea that it is only volunteers that directly watch out to sea: it is tremendous to be one of the eyes along our coast,’ says Dermot Cox, 56, a tree surgeon and yachtsman.

Mal Foster, 64, ex Royal Navy and retired civil servant thinks it ‘an enjoyable and important role’. Peter Christmas, 77, ex Commander of a nuclear

submarine agrees it is a ‘very rewarding and responsible job’.

Bev Livermore, 41, John Lewis Partner and local photographer finds it “very worthwhile to do something valuable for your local community without it really affecting your busy life”.

The National Coastwatch Institution has Princess Anne as its Royal Patron and is celebrating the 25 th Anniversary of its foundation this year. Like the RNLI it is a registered charity with no government or other funding. Locally, Gosport NCI relies on a number of fundraising activities to

buy equipment and pay its bills.

Donations are very welcome. Readers wanting to find out more, make a donation or preferably become a Watchkeeper should google “Gosport NCI”.