More Adventures of a Coastguard

Photo of a coastguard boat in Belfast from

14 November 2008

 The alarm sounded and I made my way to the station. The ops room had received a mayday: no position or name of vessel. The ops room launched two life boats: Sheppey and Whitstable, the police launch, and scrambled two mud rescue units: Sheppey and Medway. That is half the maritime rescue services of North Kent; but what else could the ops room have done?

Ops room suspected that the mayday call could have come from a ship loading or unloading at Thamesport. The dock workers are paid by the tonne and do not interrupt work for anything as trivial as a mayday call. A flag of convenience freighter was unloading. One of our number went to the radio cabin and saw that the radios were tuned to several channels, not including the one from which the mayday was sent.

We reported to the ops room who had done some detective work and concluded that the mayday call had originated east of Sheppey. They ordered the Western units to stand down. On the way back we saw a red flare. We took a bearing and concluded that it was inland of Shorncliffe marshes. Somebody was playing silly games.

I did not get a long lie abed. There was an exercise scheduled for mid morning. Somebody had noticed that we tended to hold these exercises on a falling tide so we could have several hours to fix things if something went wrong. Sooner or later we would have a gig on a rising tide with time against us. So we prepared for that.

Students were not amused

Station officer held the exercise outside the University halls of residence. You can imagine the filthy looks we got when we started the winch while students were sleeping off their hangovers. Chatham mud varies in texture from messy but solid all the way to quicksand. This mud was so slack our ropes sank into it. 

You can see why it is an all hands alert when somebody is stuck in the mud. It takes two men in the mud with a stretcher and two more to operate the winch. One also needs somebody to work the radio and one or two others for crowd control and lookout duties.

28 November 2008

The alarm sounded at three bells in the morning watch. I was first at the station. I live at the eastern extent of our beat so I usually arrive at the station to find them waiting for me. It was a garbled and incomplete Mayday message.

We are excellent chaps in the coastguard but mind reading is not one our skills. If you need to call an emergency service be sure to give an accurate location. We checked all the possibilities but drew a blank. There was a bitter wind blowing. By the time I got home it was too late to go back to bed.

Five bells in the morning watch is an odd time for a gentleman of mature years to be getting out of bed. It was a joint exercise with the lifeboat crew and mainly for their benefit. They sent their hovercraft. There is a huge expanse of mud around here and there are times when neither a boat nor a 4×4 will get us to the location.

We learned that when you get an accurate position report (a rare luxury around here) it is best to start in the middle and work outwards. We relied heavily on the local yacht club for logistical support so the exercise was arranged for the benefit of onlookers. I am reminded of the Battle of Manassas/Bull Run where picnickers came to observe.

The best gigs happen when I am unavailable. A punter went skinny dipping in the Medway. That is a bad idea in summer. In winter it is howling lunacy. It was too late to do anything by the time the team got there.