National Coastwatch Institute – Eyes along the coast
The National Coastwatch Institute (NCI) has around 60 stations along the coastline of Britain. They are all staffed by volunteers and each station has a unique brief. Princess Anne, the Princess Royal is the Patron of NCI visited Folkestone’s station on 18th July 2023 to meet, thank and celebrate the work our volunteers do. The station has been sponsored by local individuals and organisations such as the Roger De Haan Charitable Trust, Saga, Ray Johnson and others. Folkelife met Station Manager Rob Wilsher to find out more about the work that happens here.
“Our unit opened in October 1998 and is known locally as Copt Point. If you look out from our Bridge you can see Dover Western Docks to the left, and over to the right you can make out Dungeness Power Station. And that’s the area we operate in. There’s a bit of cliff by Dover Western Docks that juts out and this creates a sight barrier to Dover Coastguard. Their radio transmissions can’t get through to some vessels that might be caught behind so we’re an important link. We can see if anything needs help there, and we can communicate with Dover, and they to us, and us to the vessel.
“This is one of the busiest international shipping seaways in the world. We get huge cargo transporters coming through, there are ferries, cruise ships, fishing boats and yachts. Closer to the shore, which is our main area of interest, you have swimmers, dingies, paddleboarders… you name it, if you can get it on the water, we can see it!”
2600 volunteer eyes along the coast
“All around the British Isles there are stations like us. And each one of us has a different job to do. You might be observing Morecombe Bay or be half way up a cliff side. Each station is different. We train our volunteers to use all the equipment we have here which monitors the vessels passing through. Each vessel has a name and that comes up on our screens. If there’s something there that isn’t identified, it’s up to us to help find out what it is.
“There are a lot of people who play in the sea, and are maybe unaware of the dangers. If you look out towards the Lighthouse at the end of Folkestone’s Harbour Arm you can see the waters there are moving in different directions. There are rip tides out there that can whisk a small vessel out to sea if you’re not careful. If you look towards The Warren you can see the wind comes off the shore and can blow small vessels into deeper waters. It’s up to us to make sure the Coastguard knows of anyone in distress in this area, so they can rescue them.”
Jet skis and paddle boards
“It’s great that people get out and have fun, but it is important to be aware of what’s going on around you. For example, on the other side of Folkestone, towards Hythe, we’re in daily contact with the UK Defence Training Estate. There are firing ranges in Hythe and Lydd, and if jet skis venture too close to the shore then the training must cease.
“We have open days and attend events such as the Trawler Race so that we can talk to people about what we do, and how they use the sea. Visitors to the station are very welcome, but make an appointment first so we know you’re coming! We’re also actively recruiting volunteers to help our service cover a longer period of time. Currently we can observe between 9am and 6pm but it would be great to be able to monitor later into the evenings, particularly in the summer season.”
princess anne visits
“We were expecting the Princess Royal to visit in 2020 but we went into Lockdown so all that had to be put on hold. So on 18th July 2023 we welcomed her to our station and showed her the training that goes on here. We have a fully equipped training room built into the hill where we can train our volunteers to use the radios, and monitoring equipment. We have a galley and the Bridge but we couldn’t introduce all our volunteers to the Princess here as there’s not enough space. Folkestone Yacht and Motorboat Club are good friends of ours so we moved down there to finish the visit. There HRH unveiled a plaque to commemorate the work we do here. Conveniently, the Club is celebrating its 50th Anniversary, so a royal visit is a great way for them to mark that occassion.”
“All of our volunteers are trained to act in emergencies and co-ordinate with search and rescue services. A lot of our work is routine; we log each vessel as it passes us so that if it were to come into trouble later, you can see its path. We have our own dedicated VHF Channel – 65 – where anyone with a VHF radio can contact us using the proper call signs. There are other channels that we listen in to so that we are aware of what’s going on.
“This is a job that continues for 364 days of the year, and it’s a valuable role we play in monitoring this part of the coastline. In 2011 we received The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. This is the highest award given to local volunteer groups and recognises the outstanding work our volunteers do for the community here in Folkestone. We’re always looking for new volunteers so please do come and find us if you are interested in joining.”