I was to meet Dave, my fellow watchkeeper for the afternoon, by the Surf Shop in Bishopston at 1.10pm (or 1310 hours as we say in the trade!). I like to be on time and smiled with satisfaction to see that Dave had not yet arrived. I had been there a couple of minutes when I looked at my watch and frowned on seeing that it stated with its usual confidence that it was 12.12pm. Blast! I thought. I headed back home, I would have enough time for an espresso and a few pages from my current book.
I was concerned though as this was not the first time, last week I had a dentist appointment, his first of the morning. I walked in “You’re early!” he said. “Well I make a virtue of being early.” Said I. “Mmm yes” said he “but maybe a week early is taking things to extremes” I laughed off my embarassment and made my way back home.
My second attempt to make a rendezvous with Dave was a predictable success and I jumped into his car and we sped off to Rhossili. The morning watchkeepers, Liz and George, brought us up to date with the situation on the island. Flooding would be within the hour and the ‘Too late to cross’ boards were up but there were people who were going the wrong way, this was worrying. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say and indeed they were giving us the chance to use the siren. The siren is new and this one does not slip into ‘Jingle Bells’ I kid you not! A few long and undulating blasts drew attention to the situation and very effectively drew everyone elses attention to us! Soon everyone was travelling in the same direction. Sometimes I think that a couple of sheepdogs would be a good investment.
It was a lovely clear day with a good crowd of visitors and this is what makes a shift enjoyable. A couple of times during the afternoon the lookout was crowded with wide-eyed children and parents, the children sometimes patiently awaiting their turn at the binoculars but often not. Parents always have many and varied questions which we are delighted to answer. There was a family from Switzerland whose children came in bearing treasures, one bore a small piece of quartz to show us and the other had a small piece of coal. The coal had a story and Dave knew it. He told them about the ship called the Samson which was wrecked on the shore beneath us about 100 years ago, it had been carrying coal out of Swansea docks. The coal had spilled out on the shore and the industrious villagers of Rhossili bore it all away before the excise men heard about it. Rhossili houses were warm for a couple of winters after that! Later a large family from Perth Australia called in, their children swarming over our chairs. They eventually went away with big smiles on their faces and we really noticed the silence when they left!
Meanwhile, on the airwaves, things were happening. On the far side of the Pembrokeshire coast a 35 foot yacht was in trouble with a broken down engine and requesting assistance. A boy was stuck 35ft up a cliff in Pembrokeshire and a person with a bike was cut off on a sandband in the Loughor estuary.
The yachtsman was calling the coastguard for assistance and information was passing back and forth as to what assistance was needed. The report came through about the boy on the cliff and his exact position was being established. The position of the boy with a bike (why a bike?) was being determined. All this in an unhurried and calm manner. The Rescue 169 helicopter was being called up, that was situated in Devon, thank goodness it doesn’t have to come by road! Soon they were airborne and we picked it up through the binoculars far away against the horizon and tracked its progress until we could no longer see it against the background of Pembrokeshire. Smoke was being ordered to mark the position of the boy so the the helicopter could make straight for him. We heard nothing for about 20 minutes and then we heard the crew advising that the boy was now safe on the beach.
Tenby lifeboat was being called to go to provide assistance for the yacht and the voluntary crew were at the lifeboat station in about 10 minutes. We heard the lifeboat identifying their crew and they were soon on their way and in direct radio contact with the yacht. In 15 minutes or so they were there, and a member of the lifeboat crew boarded the yacht and attached the line. Then they established a suitable towing speed and were off, destination Tenby. All were to be well.
The Burry Port inshore rescue boat went to the assistance of the boy and the bike and we heard that the boy was back safe. But we wanted to know where the bike was and why did he take it onto a sandbank!
At 6.00 we were off duty, the lookout equipment was all stored neatly away, we had piped the flag down with great ceremony and we were making for home. It had been a good watch. But what was really striking was the way that the Coastguards calmly co-ordinated the rescue services, there is no panic, such reassuring professionalism. The RNLI crew assemble at amazing speed and are ready to go out in all weathers and the rescue helicopter can be on the scene in no time, do the job, and are ready for the next one.
This is all behind the scenes for most people but we hear it all the time.
Well done, and thank you everybody!