Introduction to the Birth & Development of an Idea
The Sea Safety Group was formed by Captain Tony Starling Lark, a North Sea Pilot, who had become increasingly alarmed at the number of accidents between large merchant vessels and Fishing vessels, particularly in the high-risk Dover Straits. The sinking of three fishing vessels, the “Margaret & William II”, “Ocean Hound”, and the “Wilhelmina J”, in 1991 with heavy loss of life had raised considerable concerns in many quarters, especially amongst the maritime fraternity.
To try and arouse public awareness, and to help investigate these losses, Tony Starling Lark took a BBC Film Crew, together with a Fishing Boat Skipper, (who had himself suffered a hit and run situation with a large Merchant vessel) on a normal Pilotage assignment from Brixham to a Continental port on a large container vessel.
During this passage both Captain Starling Lark and the Fishing Skipper realised that neither of them had a basic knowledge of each other’s problems in handling their vessels, the very different requirements each had when using the same stretch of water, and the need for both to make a safe living from the sea. From this early experiment, the Sea Safety Group was formed to try to bring awareness to all Mariners, whatever their calling, of each other’s problems and special requirements.
In 1994, whilst boarding a ship off Brixham in an easterly gale, Captain Starling Lark jokingly remarked, “Ah well, if I fall over the side at least the Coastguard Lookout on Berry Head will see me.” He was horrified to learn that the CG Lookout had long since been abandoned and no longer manned following the reorganisation of the Coastguard Service. At about the same time, two fishermen were lost at sea almost under the old Coastguard Lookout at Bass Point on the eastern part of the Lizard Peninsula. This prompted Peter Rayment, a Director of SSG, to suggest that the group tries to acquire the old Coastguard lookout, reinstate it to working order, and man it with Volunteers. The story goes that after a day of intense discussion, by ten o’clock that evening National Coastwatch was born, and the entire salient points down on paper.
Thanks to the tremendous help we received from the National Trust who own the Lookout at Bass Point, NCI was able to sign a lease to use the property for a peppercorn rent. The National Trust has also granted the Institution the lease on the Lookout at Cape Cornwall, and more recently on other suitable premises.
In October 1994, Capt Starling Lark and Peter Rayment held a public meeting at the Football Club House on the Lizard, during which they put their ideas to the meeting, asking if anyone would be prepared to volunteer as a watchkeeper. There was a very good response, with one local Fisherman standing up and saying, “I reckon we’ve seen history being made here tonight!”
The next meeting soon after saw the appointment of NCI’s first Station Manager, a truly remarkable woman called Lynn Briggs. Whether she realized what she had taken on we will never know, but a lot of what we do in NCI today owes much to Lynn’s pioneering work in the early days at the Bass Point lookout.
NCI Bass Point started operational Watch-keeping in November 1994, a large number of local volunteers being either fishermen or deep-sea sailors who helped with the on job training of those who needed it. On the 3rd February 1995, NCI Bass Point was officially opened, the ceremony was held at the Lookout on a cold, windy, damp day by Jenny Agguter, the well-known actress who has a home nearby. Three hundred balloons were released telling of the exciting new events taking place on the Lizard. Early in March 1996 the first radar set in NCI became operational at Bass Point, just in time for a group of volunteers to keep a twenty-four hour watch system going to monitor the Fastnet Race boats as they rounded the Lizard. Three boats at least were warned off by Falmouth CG following a report from Bass Point whose radar plot had shown that they were heading dangerously close in toward the Men Hyr rocks just south of the Point.
Following the successful launch of NCI Bass Point, other National Coastwatch teams were quick to form, and Stations established in Devon, Cornwall, East Anglia, Somerset, Sussex, Essex, Dorset, the Tyne / Tees area, South Wales. Now, in November 2008, there are over 40 operational Stations around the coast supported by One thousand seven hundred plus volunteers. All NCI volunteers willingly give their time and effort to try to make our shores that little bit safer for all who use them, and there is no paid NCI staff whatsoever. The Institution is currently developing a further twelve Stations, which we hope will become operational in the near future.
Our Coastwatch stations take many forms. New stations are formed by generally identifying and utilising what is available at locations selected by the Institution as prime sites needing a visual watch. Our current inventory of watch stations include ex HM Coastguard watch stations, harbour offices, ex World war two gunnery sites, Martello towers, purpose built, portacabins, ex estate offices, Beach chalets and National trust buildings – the list is as varied as you will find anywhere.
The Institution enjoys various joint Memoranda of Understandings with the MCA (Maritime Coastguard Agency), with HM Revenue and Customs, and more recently the Home Office’s Border , and these three working documents are guides to NCI’s role and provide the basis for the excellent working relationship the Institution enjoys with all these high level Government Departments.
Many NCI Stations have acquired, or are working towards acquiring, the coveted DFS accreditation – Declared Facility Status, giving NCI a very professional and important role to play when needed within the UK’s Search & Rescue Organisation. Not bad for a young organisation in only just twenty odd years, thanks in the main to the dedicated help from all the Volunteers who give freely of their time and effort.
The MCA Coastguard Agency, the Police, HM Revenue and Customs, NHS Ambulance Service, Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Air Sea Rescue, Environmental Agency, Border (Marine Unit), National Trust and the Meteorological Office, local and District Councils, St John Ambulance, British Red Cross Society, all support and recognize the work and dedication of the National Coastwatch Institution and its watch-keepers, who in 2007 returned over 312,000 voluntary watch hours service – all at no cost to the British tax paying public.
The Institution launched a new website www.nci.org.uk on 1st July 2008 which has proved very informative and attracted much attention.
2017 sees NCI reach our 23-year service to the British public, and with the growth we currently enjoy look forward to stations all round the coast of Britain in the not too distant future.
Updated from an original article – from the NCI “The history of the National Coastwatch Institution”