The watchful eyes of Coastwatch Lee

By Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas

‘SPOT, plot, report and respond if directed’ is the mantra of the trained, volunteer watchkeepers as they look out across the Solent from the National Coastwatch Institution’s Lee-on-the-Solent station.

Located on the seafront at the edge of the Beach Road car park, NCI Lee was the first of the four stations which survey the Solent watching for incidents.

NCI Lee Secretary Ian Stirton-Smith said the watchkeepers, “keep an eye primarily for vulnerable people – swimmers, paddleboarders, yachts in trouble.

“When we see something, we report it to the Coastguard giving a description of the incident and the position and then they make the decision as to what is done.

“We keep an eye on the incident and if a despatch [of a rescue boat or helicopter] is necessary, we provide guidance with one of us watching, one reporting and one logging the incident.

He explained that they continue to watch and report the incident because, “the tide is strong and it is surprising how quickly something can move and so we can update the position.”

It may seem straightforward but there is much more to it than just an eagle-eye and a telephone.

‘we abide by the Coastguard’s requirements’

It takes months to qualify as a watchkeeper because they need to know about tides and wind strengths, landmarks, navigation and other buoys, shallow areas and sandbanks, and be able to recognise different types of boats.

And the incident must be plotted on a navigation chart with bearing and range, latitude and longitude which is necessary to guide the rescue services to the incident especially when there is poor visibility.

The logging of the incident is important in itself but can also become of importance to the police or the Coroners Court.

So, the training programme – based on the Lee training manual which has received national recognition – aims to ensure the watchkeepers maintain a professional approach.

Ian explained: “Everything we do, we abide by the Coastguard’s requirements and we have ‘Declared Facility Status’ accreditation and we have to maintain those standards.”

That status is crucial because it means NCI Lee is recognised as part of HM Coastguard and Maritime Search and Rescue service.

Ian continued: “Trainees undertake watches under supervision and it can take two-and-a-half to three months of one training watch each week at the end of which there is an assessment.”

And, once qualified, each watchkeeper undergoes an annual assessment plus there is an annual assessment of the station by the National Coastwatch Institution.

Self-funded growth of the ‘charity’ within a charity

From its first watch at Stokes Bay in 2007 – when the equipment consisted of a pair of binoculars, a paste table and an estate car – NCI Lee has grown in membership and equipment including the station’s building which is the refurbished former St John’s Ambulance hut.

The building is leased from Gosport Borough Council – for a peppercorn rent – and recently underwent another revamp to provide more space and an upgrade of the operations room with ‘The Bridge’.

The Lee station is not a charity in its own right – it is part of the registered NCI charity – but is self-financing, raising money from bric-a-brac stalls, fayres and notably by the sale of second-hand books.

And the residents of Lee have been very generous donors – a recent post on NCI Lee’s Facebook page asking for more books produced so many that it had to stop taking books in for a while.

Money raised is used to cover the station’s costs and any surplus is transferred to the NCI. The Lee station can then use those surplus funds for purchasing equipment, etc., and can request over and above the surplus for major expenditures.

No nautical background required

Although it has 62 members, NCI Lee would welcome more volunteers – and they do not have to have had a maritime-related career or experience.

Tricia Gray was a teacher who went on to be a watchkeeper and the station’s training officer but she recalled the first time she went into the station – her comment of, “That’s an interesting map” elicited the reply: “Map? It’s a chart”.

For Ian, the training is essential and age is not a barrier.

“Most members are over the age of 70”, Ian said. “Retired and looking for something that is worthwhile and can give something back.”

Anyone interested in joining NCI Lee can drop in for a chat unless there is an ongoing incident.

Alternatively, the NCI website has a contact telephone number and a contact form.

The station operates every day of the year – including Christmas day – and is open from 9:00 until 19:30 in summer, and 09:00 to 16:00 in winter.

A three-shift system of watchkeepers operates in summer and reduces to two shifts in winter.

Lee station is part of the NCI’s Solent Coastwatch with other stations at Gosport, Calshot Tower, and Stone Point (Lepe Park).

There is also a trial station at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight and the possibility of a station on Hayling Island.

Photograph (top): Watchkeeper Gerry Thurgar on duty on in the operations room at NCI Lee