Unsure who to call
A year after nine Coastguard stations were closed in a move to centralise and network the UK’s maritime safety organisation, confusion remains among sailors about how the system works.
The transition to a new national network started in 2014 and was completed in December 2015. The national network comprises the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) and 10 other operations centres around the UK.
The remaining operations centres are Fareham NMOC, Dover, Falmouth, Holyhead, Milford Haven, Belfast, Stornoway, Aberdeen, Shetland, Humber and London. These centres are all networked together, allowing resources to be shared and workload managed during busy periods and major incidents. There have been concerns among the sailing community, however, that cruisers either do not know, or are confused about, how to contact the Coastguard, and that they may not receive the same level of service.
East Coast Pilot author Dick Holness said: ‘It is evident that there is widespread confusion and lack of understanding in the boating community about who to call, especially where a long-standing Coastguard centre has been shut down, such as Thames Coastguard.’
The Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) advises that sailors should use Coastguard call signs based on their geographical area, such as ‘Falmouth Coastguard’, but where there is any doubt, ‘UK Coastguard’ can also be used.
There are also reports of confusion within the Coastguard network. One East Coast sailor said: ‘Since Thames Coastguard closed, getting a response has become a lottery. On the three occasions I’ve tried to call Dover on DSC, they’ve not responded once. They respond to non-DSC calls to “Dover Coastguard” and “UK Coastguard” most of the time, but not always. They appear to have ceased responding to “Thames Coastguard.”’ Radio checks, where necessary, can be conducted on the local channel with the Coastguard, but never on VHF Ch16. When you make an emergency call to the Coastguard by VHF radio you also tell everyone within range. There might be someone nearby who can help you more quickly. Make sure that
A spokesman for the MCA said that there had not been many reports of issues: ‘There have been a limited number of reports about yachts not getting a response. All reports will be examined to see if there is a technical or personnel issue. Any technical issues will be investigated by our radio infrastructure department and repaired, if needed. It should be handheld VHF radios and fixed microphones are not inadvertently transmitting. Open microphone carriers can render impossible all communications on VHF Ch16.
Yachts should carry a fixed DSC VHF, a charged mobile phone, flares, a powerful torch and Personal Locator Beacon.
Vessels should be fitted with a DSC VHF radio linked to GPS so an accurate position can be sent with a touch of a button. noted that the VHF radio signal is line-of-sight. Therefore, some locations can have ‘blind spots’, due to the geographical area.’
There have also been concerns that some local knowledge has been lost in the centralised system, but Dick Holness didn’t feel this was a major issue: ‘Obviously there is a mix of old hands and newer staff in the Coastguard operations room, and where someone less experienced is handling an incident there will be an old hand keeping an eye and giving advice if necessary.’
The RYA agreed that the new system is generally working well. RYA cruising manager Stuart Carruthers said: ‘It’s been a major, and necessary, change. There have been a few niggles, but on the whole the Coastguard has managed it very well.’
The MCA confirmed that local knowledge remains a key part of its training for staff. ‘The new structure kept one station in each of the preceding pairs as a 24/7 Coastguard Operations Centre,’ a spokesman explained. ‘This has enabled the previous levels of local knowledge to be maintained. An important part of the future for HM Coastguard is the ongoing improvement of our current training programme for existing and new staff.’
‘ Since Thames Coastguard closed, it’s become a lottery whether I get a response or not’
Some handheld VHF radios now include DSC and GPS, which the Coastguard recommends