National Coastwatch Institution (NCI)

Our watchkeepers provide the eyes and ears along the coast, monitoring radio channels and providing a listening watch in poor visibility.

When people get into trouble, we’re there to alert HM Coastguard and direct the rescue services to the casualty.

We’ve been doing this since 1994, with stations located around England and Wales open, in many cases, 365 days of the year.

NCI watch keepers at work

Why 1994?

That was the year when two fishermen lost their lives off the Cornish coast near to the Lizard – within site of a Coastguard lookout at Bass Point.

But the lookout point had closed recently, as did many smaller Coastguard stations in the 1990s.


High technology and sophisticated systems – radar, VHF radio, GPS technology, for example – have vastly improved safety at sea.

Automatic Identification System (AIS) – using VHF radio and GPS technology. And why accidents still occur.

The accident at Bass Point proved that a watchful pair of eyes wasn’t totally redundant.

Local people decided to open and restore the visual watch. When the first station was opened there, the NCI was born.

We now have over 50 stations keeping watch around the coastline of England and Wales, with more in the pipeline.

Our lookouts and watchkeepers – over 2500 of them – are an important service provider to everyone who uses our coastal waters, footpaths and coastline.

Because accidents do happen and a computer or technology cannot spot a distress flare, an overturned boat, a yacht with problems, a water sports enthusiast in difficulty. Or children or adults in trouble on a beach. Or possible pollution incidents.

Watch keeper on lookout

Each station is manned by a team of fully trained and dedicated volunteers who keep a daylight watch up to 365 days a year.

They come from all walks of life and offer a wide range of skills and experience.

Our training programmes ensure that volunteers reach the high standard expected by the NCI and HM Coastguard.

Regular assessments take place at all stations, and retraining programmes are held to maintain standards and keep watchkeepers up to date with the latest legislation or improved operational procedures.

Chart work

We work closely with the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA), aiming for all stations to achieve ‘Declared Facility Status’.

This means they’re officially recognised as part of the Maritime Search and Rescue emergency services.

What is Declared Facility Status?

The eyes have it

Stations are equipped with telescopes, radar, cameras, VHF radios, telephone and weather instrumentation – as well as up to date charts.

But in the first instance, it’s all about eyes and ears.

Watchkeepers are the eyes and ears along the coast, keeping a visual watch, monitoring radio channels and providing a listening watch in poor visibility.

Surveillance work is mainly routine. Activities such as canoeing and diving are closely observed, as are bathers, walkers and climbers who use our shoreline.

But watchkeepers are trained to act in an emergency, report to the MCA and, if required, co-ordinate with the search and rescue services.


Ever watched the BBC TV programme ‘Saving Lives at Sea’?

If you have you’ve probably lost count of the number of times the RNLI coxswain in an inflatable inshore rescue boat is standing up, searching for a casualty amongst the surf and waves. Invariably the location details they’ve been given are vague.

And that’s where we can help.

RNLI Lifeboat

Many of our stations have panoramic views of the local coastline.

If we’ve made visual contact with a casualty then, with MCA permission, we can liaise with the RNLI rescue boat on VHF Channel 0. Giving them directions, and saving vital seconds.

Working with the Maritime Coastguard Agency

The everyday stuff

Emergencies are pretty rare. Thankfully.

But there are things our watchkeepers do every day, as well as watching the coastline, to help the general public.

If it means reducing the need for an HM Coastguard response and RNLI callouts, we’re on it.

We provide weather conditions and radio checks for yachtsmen and fishermen, and details of the sea state and tides for anyone about to take part in a water sports activity.

If you need a radio check or the latest weather, call us on VHF Channel 65. We’d love to help!

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