Archive: Changing role of the watchers of the seas

Ever-watchful: A coastguard on the alert in Great Yarmouth in 1953. Picture: Archant library

Ever-watchful: A coastguard on the alert in Great Yarmouth in 1953. Picture: Archant library - Credit: Archant

In our latest archive EDP essay, Jane Hales writes in 1966 about the changing role of the coastguard.

Lashed by the storm into terrible chaos, or smooth and blue to the horizon, the sea is always dangerous. Coastguards keep their inconspicuous watch around the British Isles, but the map shows that the North Sea coast is more densely dotted with their stations than the western shores. There is a divisional headquarters at Cromer, other Coastguard stations at Winterton, Happisburgh, Cley and Wells, and auxiliary ones at Mundesley, Sheringham and Hunstanton. The Cromer district headquarters controls the coast from Bacton to the Humber.

It was warm in the Cromer district headquarters that bitter afternoon. The Coastguard on duty remarked that they were in luck's way here, for the building had been once Tucker's famous hotel. The windows gave a wide view of the shore, and the dull foam-edged sea. There was a Coastguard by the radio, set on distress frequency. A continual visual, and radio telephone watch is also maintained, and the telephone brings information and reports from other stations.

It was getting dusk and rather hazy. The Coastguard could see quite clearly the flash of the Happisburgh Light vessel, ten miles off, but to inexperienced eyes it was hardly distinguishable. In another room is the smartly-kept life-saving apparatus and storage for maroons, one of which summons the Coastguard Life-Saving Corps, and two the lifeboat crew.

The Coastguard Service is under the direction of the Board of Trade. From 1857 to 1923 it was controlled by the Admiralty, and before that, back to its formation in 1831, by the Customs and Excise, when its chief job was the suppression of smuggling. Now it is primarily life saving. 'It is what makes us join the Service,' said a Coastguard.

Others duties include seeing that there are no encroachments on the foreshore, receiving weather reports from light vessels, the protection of wild bird life, acting on behalf of the Receiver of Wrecks, and fishery duties.

A Coastguard explained: 'It is a job in which you must use your own initiative in an emergency. You will not be blamed for doing too much, it is the other way round that there would be trouble! We get help from the Air-Sea Rescue Service of the RAF which can send a helicopter, or fixed-wing plane for reconnaissance. The Coastguard motto is: 'The swift emergencies of the sea call for prompt response'.'

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The Coastguard is an exacting service, and a man's household revolves round his duties. Nevertheless he has a semi-permanent home, and is not moved to another station unless he wishes to be. However, if he is in a very lonely place, where no one would wish to stay very long, he can be moved to another at the expense of the Service.

In the last century, Coastguards were taken to new stations by sea. One was set ashore on Blakeney Point. He inquired of some women gathering cockles the way to Morston, and had to carry his kit across the marshes and mudflats thither.

It might be supposed that winter is the busiest time for Coastguards, but this now tends not to be so. In the 'silly' summer season there is a lot to do - bathers to help, and amateur yachtsmen passing along the coast. If a yachtsman sailing from Yarmouth to Aberdeen is wise enough to take the precaution, he will inform the Coastguard, and be kept under supervision from station to station. Thus, when he is sighted off Winterton, Happisburgh will be informed, and if he does not appear in due course, appropriate action would be taken.

Cley Coastguard is an Occasional Look-Out, which means that though it is always in touch with other stations by telephone, look-out is only maintained in rough or thick weather. The Coastguard must keep the area under observation, visiting vantage points every two hours.

It had been rough weather for a fortnight, and was blowing hard from the north-west. The white double Coastguards' house, on the hill above the village, was battered by the wind. There was a bleak view of drab marsh and discoloured sea to the near horizon. The young off-duty Coastguard wearing a high necked thick white sweater, said he had joined the Service from the Royal Navy, in which he had been a radio operator. 'We have no radio equipment here,' he said. 'At night, when I am in the beach look-out, I talk to my friend at Wells in morse code, with a lamp. When ships are in distress often their radio set has gone, and morse or semaphore has to be used.'

Down on the beach, the gale was almost terrifying. Thankfully I opened the door marked 'H.M. Coastguard,' and was in shelter. A trap door opened above, and there was a steel ladder up to it. The copper safety bar at the top was brightly polished, as was the brown linoleum floor.

'I'll shut the trap door, an RAF man once fell through,' said the Auxiliary Coastguard. (An Auxiliary is a local man who has been trained in watch-keeping to relive the regular Coastguards.) 'Nasty following sea, and the glass is very low,' said the Auxiliary. The tide was out but it was indeed a nasty sea, angry and foam-edged below the shingle bank. To the west, a lurid sunset backed the mainland.

Inside the look-out was a Calor stove, but the flame could hardly be felt. 'Doesn't do to get too warm,' said the watcher. 'I stop here six hours and there is a little light just enough to read a chart by. Once, when I was in the old look-out the sea came right round me. And I recollect the Vera. She came ashore in 1914. Then there was a yacht before that . . . .'

The sound of his reminiscences faded away as I went down the ladder, compelled by the need of rescuing someone who was waiting outside in the cold car, in the gale and gathering darkness.