Sunday, 2 August 2009

Eyes along the coast

Welcome to my blog. If you're a newcomer, nice to see you. If you're a regular, lovely to have you back.

I've decided to change the format this week and focus completely on one building, the Shoreham watchstation. For those not familiar with the beach, it's at the far end, by the Old Fort.

The building was originally a World War Two searchlight base manned by the Home Guard. In 1958 it unceremoniously 'swapped sides', and became a German look-out post in "Battle of the V1". The film starred a young Christopher Lee immediately prior to his run-away success in horror movies. After that, the building was bricked up. Then in 2008, the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) started renovation work. Six months later, on 24th October, it opened as a watchstation.

The National Coastwatch Institution grew out of an incident at Bass Point on the Lizard. Two fishermen drowned below a Coastguard visual watchstation which had been closed as part of a rationalisation process. Touched by the loss, local volunteers and fund-raisers restored the watchstation and the National Coastwatch Institution was born. It's a charity with a simple aim; the protection and preservation of life at sea and around the coastline, or "eyes along the coast".

That was back in 1994. Since then, the NCI have opened 44 watchstations. The most recent was at Daddyhole Plain in Torbay in July. Last year they were involved in 703 incidents and will soon have 2,000 volunteers. They work closely with the Coastguard and have assumed an important link in the rescue chain.

We have two NCI watchstations in Sussex, one at Newhaven and one on Shoreham Beach. Our station was involved in the rescue of the Kittiwake as reported in the Shoreham Herald. In brief, the 49ft yacht reported difficulties when attempting passage from Newhaven to Cowes last November. Solent Coastguard tasked the station to keep a watch on the vessel as it waited for the lifeboat. Despite heavy seas and winds gusting at gale force 8, it successfully guided the lifeboat to the stricken vessel, helping to save three lives and the £140,000 yacht.

The watchstation welcomes visitors, so last Friday, I popped in and was greeted by two of it's volunteers, Max Ollerton, Watchman and Joint Deputy Manager, and Keith Ansell, Watchman.

It was a nice day. Swimmers, sailors, and jet-skiers were out and about. Max and Keith took me through their procedures and explained some of the particular problems they had at Shoreham.

In breach of a local by-law, a group of lads were jumping off the Eastern arm of the harbour. Earlier in the day they had been trying to swim from one arm to the other and back again, unperturbed by the commercial shipping lane. Max and Keith contacted Shoreham Port Authority to warn them. Their warning was overheard and as a vessel left the port, it gave a warning blast and the swimmers moved to safety. However, they don't have any means of communication with jet-skis. Whilst I was there, one raced out and back into the harbour whilst the lads swam near the eastern arm. Max explained that jet-skis are a constant threat to swimmers. They zoom into the harbour at five times the speed limit and can suddenly change direction. Most dangerously, they are blinded by their spray. Swimmers can see them, but have no chance of avoiding them.

There are 22 volunteer watchkeepers at Shoreham and between them they keep the station open from 09.00 - 17.00 hrs from Fridays to Mondays. They come from all walks of life and the age ranges from 24-86 years old. The NCI want to open full-time, but to do this they need an additional 20 volunteers. Anyone can volunteer as no experience is necessary. Successful volunteers are fully trained, and sessions are individually tailored to fit around their availability and knowledge.

Shoreham NCI also need donations. Speaking to local groups, attending coffee mornings, legacies and collections raises funds, but they need more and the wish-list is modest:

Flooring for the training room £100
Marine quality blinds to reduce glare £400
Automatic Identification System £400
Radar £1500
Outside walkway

If you'd like to volunteer or donate, please go on the Shoreham NCI website at Otherwise, visit the station. It's open to all, and all are welcome.

My thanks to Max and Keith of the NCI for your time, tea and biscuits.

See you next Sunday.

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