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.