Being a Coastguard: “It’s just helping keeping people safe when they’re at sea”

Its 6.20 Am on the 27th October 2010. It’s been a long quiet shift for those manning the HM Coastguard operation centre through the night, and the thought of retiring home for the day is beginning to sound very appealing.  Just 70 minutes to go. The team receive  a distress call from a factory fishing ship that has set alight 230 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean with over 100 people on board. The responsibility of making sure these men and women get off the burning ship safely now lies in the hands of the Coastguard.

Maggie Howell has been a coastguard for over 7 years. She was one of the crew members responsible for safety of those trapped on the burning ship: “We decide what help is needed and how best that can be achieved and who is best person or best unit to go out and do that.”

Falmouth Coastguards cover a huge amount of shoreline stretching round the coast of Devon and Cornwall. However, what many people won’t know is that the team are also the first point of contact for anyone in distress within this half of the Atlantic.

“People coming down from up North don’t even know the tides come in and out… let alone that it happens twice a day”

“We cover half way across the Atlantic, and the other side is picked up by Canada. Most of the time we get the information in and if it’s not near us then we pass that onto the relevant country, but sometimes, Countries like Liberia don’t have the adequate rescue organisations so we would have to do it. We would have to arrange a rescue in the middle of the Atlantic by using satellites and all the stuff that we have available to us.”

But it’s not just major boat incidents out at sea the Coastguards have to deal with, the everyday issues of large tidal movement and rip currents, usually associated with the lifeboat team also become a major concern for the Coastguards. “People that come down from up country, they know the lifeguards and they’ve seen the lifeboats, but they wouldn’t know what we do, and it’s us that gets the 999 call to go and help them.”
During the summer months, the Cornish coastline attracts millions of tourists unfamiliar with the area, and it’s up to the coastguards to ensure everybody stays safe.
“People coming down from up North don’t even know the tides come in and out let alone that it happens twice a day”

“As much as you can tell people and give them advice on checking on the tides and boat users checking that their boat is in good condition and checking they know how to use their radio, things do happen that are outside your control. The weather is its own animal, it does its own thing, and despite the forecasts, it can suddenly in seconds do something different.”

Being part of any emergency services team, despite being stressful, can be extremely rewarding. Especially when you’re working twelve hour night shifts. Maggie puts her as well as her colleagues love for the job down to the fact that she is helping to keep people safe on a daily basis: “It’s just helping keeping people safe when they’re at sea,” Maggie explains hosting a warm smile. “That’s our bread and butter really isn’t it, that’s what we do, is help people and rescue people, and if it weren’t for that, then we wouldn’t be here.”

During the summer of 2011, the station was close to becoming a daylight-hours only operation after plans were put forward by the Marine and Coastguard Agency. This sparked an outcry in the town, with the local paper collecting a petition of 7,459 signatures – a quarter of the population of Falmouth – calling for the coastguards to remain open 24 hours a day. Government were forced to reconsider this proposal. However, coastguard stations all over the country are in danger of closure with 8 stations across the UK expected to have closed by 2015.

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10 Days in Ireland

Photo: Tim Hunt

Images of empty Irish slabs took up residence in a wave riddled corner of my mind some time ago. Watching guys like Brendon Newton falling into green caverns in the old Mickey Smith videos always had me amped on making the crossing, but it was only until a few weeks ago that the opportunity really presented itself.

My brother had some work experience lined up on the west coast and fancied chasing some waves for a week before he started. A few persuasive phone calls, a clean looking swell on the charts along with the idea of spending St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland firmly planted into my head, and I was sold on the idea.

I now had 48 hours to book the ferry, complete and hand in work, hit Falmouth and get myself home and packed ready to leave early the next morning.

In Cork, an introduction to Beamish, led to 15 hours of heavy drinking with St. Patrick, who led us well and truly into the next day with my cousin and her family.

Full of stout, we headed west in the search of waves. A brief stop in Lahinch was followed by the mission north, to find offshores. After a windy night in the tent without pegs on Mullaghmore Head, we opted for some small barrels in Bundoran.

Cliffs of Moher

Without any form of map, GPS or working phones, we headed for Easkey, which we completely overshot, to find a secluded left hand reef. The surf was only a few feet but held the most perfect little crystal clear, hollow bowls to split between us.

Another Baltic night in the tent was followed by a 300km drive back down south to Ballybunion, where my brother worked at the angling festival after a rough night’s sleep in the car.  I joined 300 primary school kids for a sea-life talk, to leave richer in knowledge after discovering how dolphins sleep. Winning!

That afternoon, we passed Tom Lowe and Fergal Smith at a windy Aileens, to come across a stretch of reef holding a flawless left hander. A bowling sucky take-off that ran into hollow wall… and only two guys out! We were also graced by the mystic presence of local celebrity, Dusty the dolphin. She’d accompany us as we paddled back to the peak, swimming under and around us while we tried to get our heads around the bizarre situation.

Below Sea Level. Photo: Tim Hunt

Happier than a pair of pikey’s in a scrap yard, we settled for a swift pint before hitting the hay as we knew the winds would be light the following morning.

We started the final day by heading to a slab we had checked a few days before and believed to be Bumbaloids. As we hopped the fence to have a peak, it only looked about shoulder high, but after watching a couple fold in half and spew their guts out into the channel, it was clear I would be going it alone.

Aileens. Photo: Tim Hunt

The paddle was further than I had expected, meaning it was also a lot bigger than I had first thought. The second problem was a dropping tide: As I got close I could see it sucking water so hard off the slab that about half a foot of it was poking its ugly head out the water…..SHITE!

I couldn’t paddle all this way without getting  couple, so I watched it a bit longer from the shoulder trying to suss out which ones weren’t going dry. I knew exactly where I needed to sit, but that meant back-dooring the bastard, and with no one out, my balls weren’t having it. Some of them also had a hideous side wedge running through them and I definitely didn’t fancy falling head first through one of those.

Picking a Fight. Photo: Tim Hunt

After barrel dodging a couple of wide ones, I went a little deeper but caught my nose as soon as I made it to the bottom. I lost my board from under me and scorpioned my way back up the face before being dropped onto the slab. I bounced around in knee-deep water for a bit before admitting defeat and making my way back to land. It wasn’t until half way back that I noticed two cuts across my arse framed by two big tears in my suit. Ideal.

No poorly organised surf trip is complete without some sort of travel fail at some point, and up to now, the trip had run smoothly, maybe too smoothly.  We checked the wave from the previous day, but with a dropping swell and time ticking down to my return flight we sacked it off. Back at the car my brother declared he had lost the car keys, just three hours before my flight home.

After an hour spent retracing our steps through fields, it hit me….The clocks had changed last night. Props to my brother, who forked out a 120 Euro taxi ride for me to

Heaving. Photo: Tim Hunt

get to the airport. By the time taxi arrived, we had under an hour to make an hour and halves journey.

The driver was a hero. Without easing off the accelerator, he made some hairy over takes and went for some full on Colin Mcrae racing lines through the winding lanes and got me to the airport only 20 minutes after check-in.
10 minutes later, I’m sat on the plane, leaving a perfect chart behind with nothing but a maxed out overdraft to cheer me up.