Saving lives from old, cold sheds

Deputy Station Officer Craig Thompson in the office at Craster Coastguard Station.
Deputy Station Officer Craig Thompson in the office at Craster Coastguard Station.

BUILT more than 100 years ago, Craster’s current Coastguard station is more state-of-the-ark than state-of-the-art.

With just one tiny office, the rest of this former cart-shed doubles as a garage for the team’s four-wheel-drive rescue vehicle and, when empty, a venue to train the dedicated volunteers in life-saving techniques and search tactics.

The only source of water (cold) is a tap – outside. Heating comes from an electric blow-fan plugged into the mains, but it has to compete with the omnipresent damp and the wind which howls through holes in the ramshackle main door. If you need the loo, it’s a five-minute walk to the nearest public conveniences ... if they’re open.

Parking at the site, perched at the top of a steep incline at the end of a lane with a 90-degree bend, is an artform, requiring the driver to reverse the whole way. A little too much to the left and you risk going over the edge of a steep drop, which would require a rescue operation in its own right. Don’t expect to get a second vehicle up there as well.

But Craster’s woes aren’t unique – the base at Boulmer village, in a converted Victorian boathouse, is so cramped that its own dedicated vehicle has to be kept at neighbouring RAF Boulmer. It does have one distinct luxury above its sister station, however – an indoor cold-water tap.

Neither site has changing facilities, which would be a small mercy should the 14-strong crew be called out on a winter’s day, with a chilling gale-force wind whipping up the sea-spray which would soak you to the skin in minutes.

Yet these are the astonishing – and shocking – conditions which the Coastguard team, who vigilantly guard this stretch of the North Sea shoreline, is faced with 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And they are the driving factor behind plans to completely overhaul the infrastructure of the service, by purpose-building a new joint operations centre at nearby Dunstan.

Not only will the new site bring welcome relief and proper accommodation for the volunteers to do their vital work, but it willl revolutionise the efficiency of the service in the area.

One Craster Coastguard explained: “As a dedicated cliff rescue team, we can be called out anywhere at any time and not just on the coast. We can be asked to assist with mountain rescue in the Cheviots, or if there is a flood on a river inland.

“Currently, it takes about 30 minutes to get from Craster to Boulmer to collect the rest of our equipment, because it can’t all be stored on either site. If we need the Boulmer vehicle, we have to check in at the gate at the RAF station, pick it up and check out again.

“We then have to drive down to Boulmer village to pick up the trailer and the rest of the gear. Then we attend the incident.

“In that time, somebody is potentially drowning or dying from injuries they sustained falling from a cliff.”

In seaside emergencies, the Craster and Boulmer crews cover an area stretching from Beadnell Bay to the north side of the River Aln, but can be drafted in to help as far north as Holy Island, with its infamous causeway, and south to Newbiggin.

The lack of a single centre to co-ordinate a larger response, as was the case in the search for a missing fisherman last year, required the team to make do with a tent.

Unable to return to a proper base during the 24-hour-long operation, they also had no choice but to use their own homes to wash and change.

Another volunteer added: “We’re Coastguards because we want to provide a valuable service to the community. We know what we’ve signed up for. All we ask is that we’re given a proper base from which to operate.

“Everyone will benefit.”