On Thursday 9th November, SYC hosted an excellent presentation by Graham Nye – Station Manager and Hugh De Souza, - watchkeeper at Exmouth NCI, explaining the role of the NCI and why it was formed and what the NCI actually does. As a volunteer watchkeeper, I thought it would be appropriate if I were to give a brief explanation of the role of the NCI within the Search and Rescue Services.
In the 1970’s there were 43 major HM Coastguard stations plus 160 lighthouses and 30 lightships, all manned. Budget cutbacks led to closures and automation and the last visual lookout closed in October 1994. The last manned lighthouse was automated in 1998. Since the closures, safety on the sea and off UK beaches has been monitored by fewer stations, mostly by electronic means. As a result, those who do not have proper and working communication equipment can and do run into danger with little chance of being spotted by the emergency services. In 1994 two fisherman drowned within sight of the recently closed coastguard station on The Lizard at Bass Point. The local community decided to ‘do something about it’, and hence the first NCI was formed.
Today, there are 51 NCI stations around the coast of England and Wales and in excess of 2,000 volunteer watchkeepers. Over the years since the first NCI was established, hundreds of incidents (some of them life-threatening) have been observed and reported to the coastguard or other emergency services. Incidents do not happen every day. Exmouth and other NCI stations are there to provide ‘Eyes along the Coast’. Not everybody at sea has a VHF radio and batteries can ‘die’ in hand-held sets and ships' radios can also have faults aside from power and connection issues. It takes ‘Eyes’ to spot a distress flare or other signs of non-electronic distress signals.
Exmouth NCI is located in the tower by the Harbour View café at the mouth of the estuary. The tower has a commanding view of the estuary and immediate coastline together with the beach fronting onto the river. At Mean High Water Springs, the tower is still over 10 metres above the height of water. The water and beach draw a wide range of leisure and commercial users. Yachts, sailing dinghies, rowing gigs, ribs, canoes, kayaks, jet skis, leisure and commercial fishing craft, windsurfers, kite surfers, and of course those that are shore-based but take advantage of the water – holidaymakers, swimmers, dog walkers (and dogs!), children on ‘inflatable boats’, etc. Some venture far into the river where a spring tide can flow in excess of 5 knots.
To assist in keeping a watch, Exmouth NCI has three sets of extremely powerful Cyclops (binoculars) enabling the watchkeepers to look out over an area from Orcombe point to Berry Head and round up to Cockwood and then to the Exe Marina entrance. In addition we have AIS (Automatic Identity System) which a large number of yachts and other craft now have. The station is a ‘Declared facility’ which means that the MCA have been notified of the facilities that are provided to the SAR (Search and Rescue) operation. If any of the facilities become unavailable , then the MCA must be informed. The MCA is notified of the days and times the Station is on watch. During the period of GMT the station is on watch on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, from 10.00 until 16.00 local time. During the BST period the station is open seven days a week and full information on other station opening times can be found on the Exmouth NCI website:- www.exmouthcoastwatch.co.uk.
Solent CG is the designated MCA station for Exmouth NCI and a direct telephone line facility is in operation in the tower for ease of communication. In addition to this facility Exmouth NCI have two VHF radios, one tuned to Ch 65 and the other that scans channels including Ch 16 and Ch 0 (Coastguard and Lifeboat). Exercises with Exmouth ILB are undertaken on a frequent basis.
Apart ‘from Eyes along the coast’, watchkeeping involves ‘spotting, logging and reporting’. All craft movements past the tower are logged, and if say there is a SYC dinghy cruise or Exe SC race out to sea, with the club’s dedicated safety boats, then the number of dinghies going out will be logged rather than each individual one.
One issue that is very clear from HM Coastguard is that they are inundated with transmissions for radio checks. All NCI stations are permitted to transmit on VHF Channel 65 and the HMCG and NCIs are encouraging all boaters that wish to undertake radio checks to contact the local NCI for this facility. In addition, the NCI has recently been granted permission to give inshore waters forecasts on request.
This is a brief summary of what ENCI volunteer watchkeepers undertake. Further information can be sourced from the website exmouthcoastwatch.co.uk.
The tower welcomes visitors (subject to opening times and operational requirements!) Enjoy the water and stay safe.
National Coastwatch Institution is a charity which relies entirely on voluntary contributions for all its funding – including all the stations.