'Eyes along the coast' keeping visitors safe need your support

A man stood at the water's edge emptying his pockets on to the beach.

The Watch Station at NCI Skegness, located at Winthorpe.

Among the belongings he threw down was a packet of cigarettes. He didn't even seem concerned his jumper was getting sodden.

No-one could predict what would happen next - but the 'Eyes Along The Coast' feared something was not right and within minutes the police and RNLI were on the scene.

On this occasion, the man picked the items up and left the beach - but that was not the call of the National Coastwatch volunteers who had been observing him and reported their concerns. It could all have ended so differently.

In March 2018 Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal visited the NCI Station in Skegness as her first official visit in her capacity as Patron of The National Coastwatch Institution.

It's just two years since National Coastwatch - which has stations along the Lincolnshire Coast in Mablethorpe, Chapel St Leonards and Winthorpe - were celebrating their 25th anniversary.

And yet as visitors return to our beaches, many do not realise the importance of the those who keep watch over them in providing life-saving information to the emergency services, including the RNLI.

"Anyone is vulnerable out there," said Station manager, Norma Stewart.

"The sea is a hostile environment. The water is cold, so people can easily get cramps, and the winds here are strong - the combination is lethal."

Princess Anne taking an interest in the state-of-the-art equipment in the Skegness Watch Station.

NCI Skegness, located at Winthorpe, is a recipient of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service. There are around 28 volunteer watchkeepers of a variety ages from their 40s to 80s.

Norma was just starting a Sunday afternoon shift - her third that week after doing a full day on Thursday. Volunteers are still low in numbers as some are ill or shielding due to Covid-19.

Today, she is supported by watchkeeper Jean Allen - but it isn't long before she puts in a buddy call to a colleague who is alone at a station further up the coast.

"It's to ensure if we are alone and something happens, we can support each other," explains Norma.

Station manager Norma Stewart and watchkeeper Jean Allen have both been trained at plotting charts.

So far it has been a quiet day - just a few people and dog walkers enjoying a walk on the beach.

But within weeks this will change and after Spring Bank Holiday, when the holiday season along the coast really starts, there will be more families - and that means more opportunities for danger.

"Our job is to observe, plot where and report to the Coastguard - not go out onto the beach and warn people of the dangers," explained Norma.

"As well as the usual dangers of people using inflatables in the sea, there are other hazards.

High powered telescopes help Station manager, Norma Stewart (right) and watchkeeper Jean Allen observe a vast section of beach.

"The groynes are slippery and the stones on them are sharp - and yet you see mothers with toddlers walking on them. If they slip they could be in four foot of water.

"Why would you do that?."

From the Skegness Watch Station, volunteers can observe an eight-mile stretch of coast from Jackson's Point and Gibraltar Point, with the help of state-of-the art CCTV and powerful telescopes.

Learning how to plot charts is part of the training so watchkeepers can give the Coastguard, RNLI and emergency services the information they need.

"Our main job is to look out for anyone in danger or anything unusual, such as items that get washed up," said Norma.

"A couple of months ago barrels with toxic substances were washed up. Odd times there are seals and we report them to Natureland, who are brilliant."

Jean Allen has been a watchkeeper for two years.

Volunteers are always welcomed and the job of watchkeeper often attracts ex-service personnel as well as the retired.

Norma, who worked in the police control room in Hertfordshire before moving to Lincolnshire, says ex-military enjoy the order of the job.

"I spotted that National Coastwatch volunteers were needed on the noticeboard in Tesco and thought I would give it a try.

"We do get a lot of training and I was lucky to have an excellent mentor in the late Paul Woolley.

"I believe it's an important job but we are not lifesavers - our role to observe and act in the appropriate manner. We leave the rest to the Coastguard, RNLI and other emergency services.

"At the end of the day you just use your common sense and care about what happens to people - and animals. So many people walk their dogs here."

Jean, whose role was supporter that day allowing admin jobs to get done while the observation continues, also saw the job advertised. "It was about two years ago - I do other charity work but I thought this sounded different.

"So I filled in all the forms and I've been here ever since."

A high spot was on March 28, 2018, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal visited the NCI Station in Skegness as her first official visit in her capacity as Patron of The National Coastwatch Institution.

"I had only been there a few months and came along as general dogsbody on the day," recalled Norma.

"The weather was terrible but Princess Anne was amazing - so interested and so knowledgeable.

"We are so lucky to have her as our patron."

Coastwatch at Winthorpe also has a local patron - Gordon Hawkins, who has supported them with donations.

It costs £6,000 a year to run the station, including ground rent, upkeep of the building, insurance and utilities.

Like other charities, they have been able to hold stalls outside shops or in supermarkets to fundraise due to Covid-19 restrictions.

"Having a local patron is such a support - he always says he can give money, but we give our time," Norma said.

The charity bucket will be outside the Coastwatch Station in Winthorpe, next to the dog watcher bowl, over the Bank Holiday for anyone wishing to make donations.

Shifts are expected to get busier then - and that means lost children.

Norma said: "We'd just ask that when people report lost children they give us more details than just eight years old in a pink spot bikini - where they were last seen, which direction were they heading, what colour hair, are they dark or light skinned.

"Whatever the emergency, please give us as much information as possible."

NCI SKEGNESS WATCH STATION

The Watch Station at NCI Skegness was opened by The High Sheriff of Lincolnshire Mrs JGA Hughes on March 24, 2017.

The building provides excellent purview to the wind farms and their workboats to the east, the foreshore at Butlin’s Holiday Centre some two miles to the north and Skegness central beach some two miles to the south. It overlooks the Winthorpe Beach, an increasingly popular bathing beach and Jacksons Corner Boatyard half a mile to the north where small boats, ribs and jet skis are launched throughout the year. The beach is also a magnet for anglers, dog walkers, detectorists, kite surfers and kayakers.

The purpose built Station is located on property once belonging to The Coal Industry Social and Welfare Organisation (CISWO) and now owned by Smiths Amusements Ltd, owners of "The View" pub and restaurant which houses the disused Coastguard Tower, and is in the the grounds of the building known locally as the "Miners Retreat".

Station Telephone: 01754 766398

CHAPEL POINT COASTWATCH

The watchroom is located inside the new North Sea Observatory at Chapel Point, a visitor centre which also includes a cafe and Art Gallery.

Station Telephone: 01754 874311

MABLETHORPE COASTWATCH

NCI Mablethorpe is a recipient of the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service 2013

Access is via the Seaview Pay and Display Car Park with Beach Access. Café and amenities are nearby, not controlled by NCI Mablethorpe

There is a Defibrillator Available.

Station Telephone: 01507 665104

A bucket outside the watch station has been the only method of fundraising over the past few months.
National Coastwatch are always appealing for volunteers.
Soon the beaches will be much busier.
A tribute to former Watch Manager Paul Woolley on the wall of the Watch Station in Skegness.
A single bouquet - a sign that in spite of all efforts, tragedies do happen.