A visit to the coastguard

During our visit to the West Country on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary Rally of the Seal Sailing Association, Jan and Graham from Heart of Glass and Mary and I from Farrago took the opportunity, while in Brixham, to visit the Coastguard Station. We had been told that they were very welcoming to visiting Yachtsmen and this proved to be the case.

We were met at the door by one of the officers who took us straight to the Operations Room where we met the other officers on duty. That day there was four of them, the senior officer was on leave. Most of the staff had Service backgrounds, although one lady, a Dane (with no trace of an accent), had been a trawler skipper!

Firstly, we were shown the very large wall chart that detailed the areas of the sea for which they and their neighbouring stations had responsibility, extending from Portland to Lands End and including the French coast and the Channel Islands. The chant also marked the facilities at their disposal including Lifeboats, Inshore Rescue craft, helicopters, sub-stations, cliff rescue teams etc. The room had a number of work stations each with telephone switching facilities, marine VHF with control systems for the many aerials, computer terminals and no doubt many more pieces of equipment that I am unable to recall. There was a Met. desk - Brixham also being a Met station supplying weather information from Berry Head to the Met Centre. The conditions at Berry Head are recorded hourly.

We were shown another terminal with the latest software that was used to help with searches at sea. The computer is fed with the current weather and type of object being sought (a life raft will drift faster than a man in the water or a yacht), the position and many other bits of information. With its own built-in tidal information it then calculates the expected drift and suggests the areas to be searched. We saw the direction finding equipment, and our guide explained how it had been used recently when two German ladies sailing across the Atlantic had radioed for assistance to guide them into the Dart, their position being given as at the river mouth. A local fishing boat offered to help but could not find the yacht. The RDF equipment was then used and the ladies were located in the middle of Tor Bay!

Lastly we were shown the computer which will handle the new GMDSS system. Our guide explained that he was not yet up to speed with this and so it still remains a mystery to me how it will affect the yachtsman.

At this point our guide said that an alarm that we could hear was a 99999 call and he had to leave us to assist his two colleagues who were then in the room. The emergency was a child being blown out to sea on an airbed from a local beach. Initially the local Inshore Lifeboat was called, on channels 16 and 0, but after what seemed like several minutes it was clear that they were going to get no answer. It was then decided to make the incident a Pan Pan. A telephone call was made back to the number given by the Telephone Operator, and from this they established that the child was still in sight and was near one of the yellow speed limit buoys. The Pan Pan was transmitted for any vessels in the area that might be able to help to assist. Very soon, but what must have seemed like an age to the anxious parents, there was a response from an RAF rescue launch. With only a brief query made by raising the eyebrows and a nod from the acting senior officer, the channel 16 operator requested the launch to proceed to the area. There was then another call from a vessel, which we took to be a pleasure boat, which was near the spot. This boat was then asked to search for the child. The skipper asked for more information and was able to report within seconds that they had the 'casualty9 in sight and in moments the child had been rescued. The vessel then went into the beach and handed the child back to very relieved parents. Minutes later a telephone call from a local Coastguard, who had gone to the location, confirmed the successful conclusion to the emergency. The rescuer was duly thanked and proceeded about his business.

The whole event was then explained to us from the log on the computer with the precise times, and it was less than 20 minutes from beginning to end. Although there were apologies to us for having left us to our own devices, we said that we were very grateful to have witnessed the event. The complete professionalism displayed by the staff, and how they all worked together with hardly a word spoken between them impressed me. We never did find out what the Inshore Lifeboat was doing.

We were encouraged, if we had not already done so, to file our boat details with our local station. This is form CG6O I think, on which details of the type and colour of boat, life-raft etc. are given so that if they ever have to organise a search for us they know what to look for. Finally they encouraged us to advise them of our passage details the next day on our crossing of Lyme Bay back to Poole.

What a wonderful service they provide!

Tony Farr
Parker 325 'Farrago'

18 Dec 98