Eyes Along the Coast

PUBLISHED: 17:11 19 October 2010 | UPDATED: 18:02 20 February 2013

William Knapman hoisting flag at the station
Photo: Sally Vaughan

William Knapman hoisting flag at the station Photo: Sally Vaughan

Sally Vaughan explores the role of the National Coastwatch Institution at their newest station at Lyme Bay where their watchkeepers 'Spot, Plot and Report'

Take a short walk up Burton Cliff and youll no doubt be looking out at the sea. The crashing waves may be captivating, but while youre watching it, somebody is probably watching you!

Look to your right, and up on the cliff youll spot a modest shed in the grounds of the Burton Cliff Hotel. If youre there at a weekend between 10am-6pm then give a wave to the person with the binoculars it might be Clive Edwards (Station Manager), William Knapman (Deputy Station Manager), or one of the other NCI volunteer watch keepers.

On 31 July the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) opened its 44th Look-Out post at Burton Bradstock. Known as NCI Lyme Bay, it strategically plugs a gap between Portland and Exmouth that has until now been unmonitored. The current Coastwatch Station is temporary, and there largely due to the generosity of local residents and benefactors; amongst them the Cooper Dean Estate, musician and local resident Billy Bragg and hotelier Mary-Lou Sturridge. As well as looking out for the safety of the public, NCI Lyme Bay is also on the look-out for a permanent home, more funds and more volunteers.

Founded in 1994, the NCI was established to restore a visual watch along UK shores. HM Coastguard stations had been closed due to Government cutbacks, and it wasnt long before a tragic fishing accident prompted the formation of a voluntary service. NCI watchkeepers are the eyes and ears along the coast, monitoring radio channels and keeping a visual surveillance. Over forty NCI stations from Cornwall in the South West to Wearside in the North East are manned by some 1700 volunteers dong their bit to keep us safe in, on and by the water.

A watch keepers brief is to Spot, Plot and Report any actual or potential incidents that might occur on the coast or out at sea. Whilst a weekend service is a great start, the organisation is focusing on recruiting more volunteers so the station can be operational seven days a week.

With a combined total of over 60 years maritime experience Clive Edwards and William Knapman are well-qualified for the job and are familiar with this part of the Dorset coast. There have been quite a few incidents in this area, in places like Freshwater for instance, Clive explains. Originally we were looking at using the old Admiralty look out at Cogden. The National Trust was happy to have us manage the look-out, but they couldnt negotiate a deal with the land owner so it was a bit of a non starter.

So, I approached Mary-Lou Sturridge, she gave us some space on her land, and Billy Bragg who Id known for a while agreed to give us an electrical supply, toilets and water. He is also supporting us by putting on a fundraising concert early next year.

In addition the Cooper Dean Estate has given them a start-up grant of 5,000 for equipment, and the NCI have given them a donation plus an interest free loan. Were also expecting a donation from a charity golf match to be held in Lyme Regis, organised by Dr. Philip Bennett of Lyme Bay Dentistry.

Thanks to these generous donations they are well-equipped says William. Instead of just a notebook, a phone and a kettle, we have top of the range binoculars, a telescope, VHF scanner, VHF transceiver, a weather station, a loud hailer, charts and maps and by next summer were hoping to have radar. Portland Coastguard has something of a blind spot here and said it would be good if we have radar. Theyve been extremely supportive, as have the local Coastguard Rescue team based at West Bay.

Chair of NCI Lyme Bay, Sir Christopher Colville, has stated that the PR objective now is to encourage people to become watchkeepers and enhance recruitment. They already recruited an amazing selection of volunteers already as William reveals. Theres an ex-RNLI life boat coxswain, a member of the Special Boat Service, three yacht masters, an ex-Royal Navy Officer, and several from the emergency services. Mostly people are over 40, but wed like to recruit men and women of all ages from all walks of life. They need to be trained in the procedures of the NCI but its not complicated and its all very interesting.

Youll learn about the weather, the tides, how to plot a latitude and longitude on a chart, how to estimate distances, plot grid references on OS maps and VHF Radio procedure. But the first thing you learn is to abide by the NCI slogan Spot, Plot and Report. Basically this means looking for incidents, monitoring the coastline and the sea and if you spot the potential for an incident you report it to the Portland Coastguard Rescue Co-ordination Centre. You monitor events to see how they unfold - thats the prime thing, says William. If we spot a potential incident we write it in the log and keep an eye on things if two kayakers paddle by and only one paddles back then theres a problem, its often as simple as that, accounting for numbers!

NCI Lyme Bay have set themselves a target of recruiting at least 25 volunteers in order that the Look-Out can be operational seven days a week by next Whitsun. Training, which will take place on Monday evenings throughout the winter at Litton Cheney village hall, will involve both experienced people as well as those without a background in seamanship. We hope to bring people on through a system of mentoring, says Clive, adding. Once trained, volunteers can then potentially do as much or as little watchkeeping as they want to. There are certain guidelines, but every station has its own operating practices within the broad remit of saving lives. Ideally wed like volunteers who can commit to at least two watches a month.

Each watch is four hours, and at the moment they operate between 10am and 6pm and in the summer from 10am to 8pm. Theres no point being here any earlier because this beach doesnt really warm up until coffee time. Ive been watching! laughs Clive.

Fortunately, the Look-out hasnt had to deal with any major incidents so far. Weve had a few minor incidents and a couple of near misses that involved people getting caught up in the surf. On one occasion we had the West Bay Coastguards here on a visit so they went round and gave them some safety advice it was getting to the stage where if they hadnt been here, Id have rung Portland.

In the case of an incident watchkeepers are instructed not to leave their post, but to stay and monitor. They do have a loud hailer, but their role in an emergency situation is to inform the Coastguard, a policy Clive totally supports.

For some of us, particularly those of us with previous search and rescue experience, its not in our nature to not get involved, but we have to discipline ourselves which is quite right. If you start getting involved the Lookout could be left unmanned and you could miss something else going on.

The motto of the NCI is Eyes Along the Coast, and William is pretty clear about what qualities makes a good watchkeeper, They need to be reliable, observant, and very level headed. Women make extremely good watchkeepers, and that is not a flippant remark. They seem to be more observant. They also have good VHF Radio voices its something to do with the pitch of their voices I think.

The arrival of the NCI Lyme Bay has been welcomed by concerned locals; the beach at Burton Bradstock is notorious for its steeply shelving shoreline, heavy waves and strong under tow. It gets worse the further east you go. Some days its quite benign, but on other days its truly treacherous. Hotelier Mary-Lou Sturridge, who donated her land to the temporary Look-Out, has seen people get into difficulties all too often. Billy (Bragg) and I got involved because wed see people getting knocked over and wiped out by the waves when entering and leaving the water or wed see small boats in difficulty; most people have no idea how dangerous these waters really can be!

The reward of being a volunteer watchkeeper are obvious and for Clive and William the satisfaction they get is easy to sense through their enthusiasm and resolve to make this initiative a success but there is a small cloud on the horizon a lack of a permanent site.

Its our biggest frustration and our biggest worry, declares William, as soon as the new Burton Cliff Hotel is completed their temporary plot will be no more. Weve scoured the coast between Abbotsbury and Sidmouth looking for a site. Weve checked all the pill boxes. One possibility might be to move to an appropriate plot at Golden Cap Holiday Park, where owner Martin Cox is very supportive of us. Another is to use a spot on West Bexington car park, or possibly put the Look-Out on East Cliff at West Bay.

Since it opened in July NCI Lyme Bay have established links with a whole host of coast related organisations and clubs including the local gig rowing clubs, dive clubs, sailing clubs and rambling groups. They are forever on the look-out for independent dinghy sailors, walkers, kayakers, fishermen, pleasure boaters and anyone who comes into their sights; watching over them in case they get in to difficulty.

So if youre around Lyme Bay, remember the watchkeepers and give them a wave or why not become a volunteer and enjoy the view!

For more information visit nci.org.uk or contact william.knapman@nci.org.uk or call the NCI national number 0845 460 1202

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