The other sea-boot dropped today as UK Transport Minister Philip Hammond re-thought draconian plans to cut 18 coastguard stations to 3. The revision restores both Stornoway and Lerwick to the roster, along with Aberdeen and has caused much relief and no small celebration in the isles. But, whatever advantages technology undoubtedly offers through radar, depth sounders, GPS, etc, there is no substitute for professional local knowledge. Given that the total coastline of the Northern and Western Isles exceeds that of England & Wales where there are to be 7 stations retained (out of 13), this seems only sensible.
On the down side, we lost Tynemouth, Oban and Pentland in 2001 and now both Clyde (at Greenock) and Forth (at Fife Ness) stations are to be “phased out by 2015” i.e. closed. This is a real loss—and not just for local jobs. There are over a dozen lifeboat stations in Forth’s patch alone; together they handled 40% of all rescue callouts in 2010. The Forth is Scotland’s busiest waterway with tankers, cruise ships, ferries and RN ships and sundry bulk coal and container ships. The number of inshore fishing boats landing shellfish is growing each season. Then there are seasonal boat trips and a burgeoning number of recreational sailors, divers, surfers, jet-skis and general plouterers-about.
Everyone accepts that new technology has made marine traffic safer. But we’ve had light-houses, powered ships, foghorns and professional mariners for 200 years already. In that time, we have accumulated over 200 wrecks around the Forth alone. That we haven’t had many recently might be because HMC Fife Ness has been doing a bang-up job.
Our most recent wreck was the work of professionals who should have known better. HM Fishery Protection Vessel Switha miscalculated the shoals south of Inchkeith in January 1980 and rammed Little Herwit Rock so hard the wreck was visible for the next quarter century. But when Fife Ness closes, the Forth will be handled from Aberdeen (the next station south is at Bridlington). Whether they’ve ever heard of Little Herwit Rock is a moot point. Local names are unknown 100 miles away and most inshore fishermen don’t know a Northing from a fishhead. How long will a loon o’ Aiberdeen need to get a map grid reference from a crackly radio that “a boat’s in trouble in-bye the Lattie Doocot”?
As I explained in an earlier post, our sea rescue service is a hybrid, with all-volunteer RNLI in the front line. With HM Coastguard as rescue co-ordinater to RAF Boulmer (Northumberland) and/or HMS Gannet (Ayrshire) for Sea King ASR lift and transport, it has worked seamlessly. It is the local knowledge of the HMC officers that knows to call out a RIB to effect rescue in shallow waters or hold off a helicopter from a yacht now hard against vertical SW cliffs of the May. The joint work among all four organisations relies on HMC’s hard-won local insight as much as their professional training.
Expecting Aberdeen to understand the complex rip tides that run through the Sound of Vatersay was always unreasonable. But is it any more reasonable to expect them to know one almost as bad that runs past the South Dog of Fidra, then over Brigs so shallow and jagged they’ll take the bottom out of anything but a RIB? In 2015, most people will not miss Fife Coastguard. But in the summer of 2016—guaranteed—someone in peril on the Forth will regret a local knowledgeable presence was ‘rationalised’ out of existence.