Meet the coastwatch volunteers helping to keep Torbay’s waters safe
PUBLISHED: 16:22 11 March 2019 | UPDATED: 16:22 11 March 2019
Jet skis, paddleboarders, kayakers and fishermen: the stunning waters around Torbay can get pretty crowded. Thankfully, a dedicated team of volunteers is on hand to keep everyone safe. CHRISSY HARRIS meets members of the National Coastwatch Institution
The rain has stopped and a gentle westerly is blowing the clouds away to reveal bright sunshine. The tea is made, the flag hoisted and it’s time for Leslie Spevock and Heather Cooper to start their shift, 75ft up in Torbay’s National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) tower.
From here, the pair will be monitoring all marine activity, stretching up to five nautical miles out to sea and then across Torbay, from Orestone Rock, south to Berry Head then right around the western shoreline of the Bay to the comings and goings at Torquay Harbour.
If anything is amiss, the trained watchkeepers can radio through to the coastguard, who will alert Brixham’s RNLI lifeboat and any other emergency services at a moment’s notice.
“We are the eyes along the coast,” says Leslie, who has been an NCI volunteer for nearly nine years. “It’s a bit like being a lifeguard at a swimming pool. You don’t have to jump in that often but it’s important that you’re on the sidelines, just in case.”
Torbay’s tower is one of 50 NCI stations set up across the country, operated and manned by more than 2,000 volunteers.
Devon has five teams in their watchtowers dotted all around its coastline, keeping a constant eye on boats, swimmers, watersports enthusiasts and anyone else out on the water.
All members are certified to use VHF radios, including the NCI’s dedicated VHF Channel 65. They also have access to radar, powerful binoculars and a range of weather monitoring devices.
Mostly, however, these volunteers, who come from all walks of life, rely on good old-fashioned eyes, ears and common sense to help keep us safe at sea.
The NCI, now in its 24thyear, offers vital support at a time when a shake-up to rescue services means that many coastguard stations – including Brixham – have closed down.
“Lots of boats owners have told us that it’s just nice to know that someone is up there, keeping an eye on things,” says Heather Cooper, who has just started her shift up here in the smart-looking blue watchtower.
“I really enjoy it. You get to meet some really lovely people. It’s a wonderful service.”
And the view’s not bad either. From way up here in this clifftop perch on Torquay’s Daddyhole Plain, you can actually see for miles.
Fishing boats are heading out to open sea, paddleboarders gently power along as jet skis criss-cross the water.
“That little boat over there is a maintenance vessel for the off-shore wind turbines,” says Grant Grafton, deputy station manager. “You really do see all sorts. The cruise ships come in three or four times a year and we quite often have big cargo ships at anchor, taking shelter from storms. We had 13 here just before Christmas.
“You’re all the time looking out for anything unusual or vulnerable. In the summer, this bay is full of people boating and swimming. Most of it you can ignore but it’s when you see someone not wearing a lifejacket, you start to think, are they used to being out on the water? Have they been on that boat before?”
Watchkeepers also keep a lookout over the cliffs and caves, in case people get stranded by the tide. At the first sign of trouble, the team can alert the coastguard.
Volunteer and team fund-raising representative Anne-Marie Russ had to call for assistance when she spotted three men stranded on rocks at Roundham Head.
“I just saw that they couldn’t get off so I called the coastguard,” she says. “In the end, they managed to climb up to safety but if they hadn’t been as fit and strong as they were, they would have had to be rescued.”
Being on stand-by is what it’s all about here. Volunteers – who don’t have to have any prior experience - are expected to cover at least two four-hour shifts a month to make sure the tower is manned 365 days a year (for eight hours a day in the winter and nine in the summer).
Team members are also required to wear the navy blue NCI uniform.
“It’s a great organisation to be a part of,” says Anne-Marie, who joined as a way of meeting people when she moved to Torquay.
“Everyone is so friendly and we get on so well. I find it very therapeutic coming up here, getting away from it all and just focussing on what needs to be done.”
To find out how to join the NCI, see: torbaynci.org
A top tower and visitor centre
The station, situated on Daddyhole Plain, Torquay, has declared facility status, which means it is a fully fledged part of the integrated search and rescue services.
You can visit the centre between 10am and 6pm. The team recently received the prestigious Queens Award for voluntary service (QAVS). The station reports directly to Solent Coastguard.