21st Century Coastguard – the video

On 22nd January, Geoff Matthews of HM Coastguard gave a fascinating talk about the major reforms taking place within the Coastguard service. The changes arise from the advances in information and communications technology over the last 2 decades. It was clear that Geoff firmly believes that the new situation will represent a major step forward. However the transition will, as he said “present some challenges”. We agree with that sentiment. A new organisation, with some new skills is bound to present a challenge, and there will be bumps and potholes along the way. We wish the service the good fortune to apply their professional skills to negotiate them successfully.

At the same time, the withdrawal by MOD from civil search and rescue (and the retirement of the long range Nimrod aircraft) has led to one of the largest private contracts let by government for  new  all civilian SAR (Search and rescue) coverage. But as HMCG has been contracting civil helicopter services for many years, this change is just one more part of the reorganisation that has to be managed.

In his talk (part 1 of the video) Geoff addresses all these issues, and then addresses questions from the audience (part 2 of the video}.

PART 1 – the lecture

PART 2 – the discussion


The discussion was held in the conference centre of Southampton Solent University


Coastguard NMOC starts to take shape

Although we shall be losing the Coastguard station at Lee on Solent, the new National Marine Operations Centre to be based at Segensworth, near Fareham will offer fully modern facilities with the Solent area as one of its primary functions.

Work has already started on installing, testing and commissioning the new systems on which modern Search and Rescue (SAR) communications depend.

This will be the hub of the national Coastguard system, allocating resources to where they are needed, and coordinating the new helicopter service, and all the voluntary organisations that contribute to our SAR services. The changes needed to bring this about are reviewed in our Coastguard Reorganization Issues page.

The picture below is taken from the new meeting and observation gallery, overlooking the main operational area of NMOC. In the event of a major incident (such as when the Napoli went aground in Lyme Bay, this is probably where SOSREP  will establish a command centre. In such situations SOSREP acquires the full powers of the Secretary of State to direct emergency resources.


NMOC Control Room, Segensworth
NMOC Control room, seen from viewing gallery meeting room

Direct coastal services will be maintained by shore teams at Hillhead and other locations, supported by the National Coastwatch Institute volunteers.

Changes in Solent Coastguard become clearer

The BBC H2O show has raised the profile of the Coastguard reorganisation debate. There is a BBC article that summarises the position .

At Solent Protection Society, we have been concerned about the impact of these changes on Solent users. We went to see Peter Dymond, Chief Coastguard, and an account of that discussion led to the Coastguard Reorganisation feature on our website. When the programme is completed, there will be a national network of 10 Operations Centres with a National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) at its hub located in Fareham (which will effectively replace Lee On Solent)

We were surprised at the positive attitude towards the changes being taken by Peter Dymond. Far from being apologetic about ‘cutbacks’, Peter clearly set out the perceived benefits arising from what he regarded as a long overdue reorganisation.

We are not totally convinced that all the changes are beneficial, or have been fully thought through, but we do believe that there will be many real gains from this reorganisation.

Coastguard myths

There are many myths about Coastguard that cloud the argument. The following may help to clarify the situation

1: The Coastguard manages search and rescue around our coasts. It does NOT direct shipping; it does NOT have power or resources to  control immigration or smuggling. It has virtually no waterborne resources of its own, but relies instead on RNLI and other voluntary rescue organisations  (Coastguard does require vessels carrying hazardous goods to report when transiting Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS))

2: The control centres (currently called MRCC) have  not had visual watch over our shores since 1979. That has led to the growth of the voluntary National Coastwatch Institute which is gradually being integrated into the Coastguard resources – though we have detected some residual tensions that should be ironed out.

3: Primary local knowledge resources rest with the Coastguard shore teams that are NOT being reduced (and indeed their management and training resources are being increased). In the Solent, the teams based at Hillhead, Selsey, Hayling, Portsmouth, Lymington, Southampton, Bembridge Newport, Ventnor, Ryde and Needles will continue to provide the same coastal search, rope, mud and shallow water rescue response as they do now. This coupled with the local knowledge of RNLI, Coastwatch and other volunteer rescue teams means that the reduction in the number of Control centres has less impact than may have been supposed.

4: The reduction in helicopter services is serious, but is beyond the control of Coastguard. It arises from the decision taken by MOD to withdraw from civilian search and rescue, making it necessary for the government to grant a new contract to a private company. This is one of the largest private sector contracts awarded by government and has received close scrutiny by Whitehall, including the Treasury.  The new helicopters will have greater capacity and longer range, but the loss of the Portland helicopter means that the load on the helicopter based at Lee on Solent will be increased. That must cause some concern.

5: Not often discussed is the loss of ‘top cover’ that used to be provided by RAF Nimrod aircraft when Coastguard were managing deep sea SAR operations. As this is not a Solent matter, we will not discuss that further, although we understand that in most cases ad hoc arrangements can be made.

Our Concerns

In any major change like that which Coastguard is experiencing, there are bound to be problems. Some will be transitional when only half the organisation has been cut over to new systems. And who has not had operating problems, when faced with a new computer system?

We raised a number of questions with Coastguard. These are reviewed  in the pertinent questions section of our website. However there are some issues where we think the answers need to  be improved.

1: There are numerous questions relating to the recommended use of flares and, especially, the disposal of flares.The RYA has published useful advice on these matters, but it would be useful if the Coastguard position was clearly stated.

2: We are told that “If you call ‘Solent Coastguard’, you will be answered “. The problem is that if the new centre at Fareham is busy, then the answer would come from Swansea or Dover (or Aberdeen). Will they respond as “Solent Coastguard”? Or just “Coastguard”?. This needs to be clarified.

3: If Coastguard are to convince us that the loss of local knowledge is minimal, then we would hope to see closer integration of Coastwatch into the SAR resource base. We would encourage Coastguard to explain more fully the strengthening of the coastal teams. This would reassure the public.

4: While the scope of air support is beyond Coastguard control, we must hope that the proposed helicopter deployment will be kept under close scrutiny and reviewed if found necessary.


The Coastguard changes are massive. By and large, the changes are being made for positive reasons, but the whole system will be vulnerable during the transition. Many details remain to be clarified.

We shall continue to observe and report on developments in our news, blog, and Coastguard Reorganisation pages. More background explanation is available in the SAR pages of our “How the Solent works” section.

We have invited HM Coastguard to present these changes at a  major Winter Lecture talk on 22nd January at the Solent University Conference Centre in Southampton. The meeting is open to the public, and reservations can be made on our Events Page.



Coastguard debate continues

Richard Drax, the Dorset MP, continues to argue against the Coastguard ‘cuts’, as reported in a BBC article.

We remain concerned about this too, but when we talked to Coastguard, they made a number of points which ought to be taken into account

  • While the control centres are being closed, these have not had visual coverage of the coast for many years
  • There is no downsizing of the 356 Coastguard Rescue Teams around the UK Coast, including Hill Head, Lymington, Portsmouth, Hayling and Selsey on the Solent mainland; and Ryde and the Needles on the Isle of Wight Solent shore
  • Management and training resources for the coast rescue teams are being increased
  • The helicopter provision is one of the largest contracts awarded by central government, and is in direct control of Treasury

So while Richard Drax may have a good point about the extra flying time for the helicopter to reach the Dorset coast, it is difficult to argue that local knowledge has been reduced, especially when the new voluntary Coastwatch service is being integrated into the coastguard resource base.

Full details of the changes are given on our Coastguard Reorganisation issues page/

There are still some questions to be resolved, so we have arranged a talk by Geoff Matthews of HM Coastguard in Southampton on 24th January, at which questions can be asked

National Coastwatch

Coastwatch – keeping us safe on the water

Coastwatch is a voluntary organisation that seeks  to provide visual coverage of activity on the water to identify accidents and dangerous situations. . There are now 49 manned stations along the UK coast, and the number is growing. Four stations are in the Solent at the Needles, Calshot, Lee on Solent and Gosport.

Relationship to HM Coastguard

Major Search and Rescue operations are coordinated by HM Coastguard, part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. They have embraced modern technology as it has developed, and are currently undergoing a major reorganisation. As a result, the Coastguard capability for direct visual observation is being further reduced.

The creation of Coastwatch was a response to this trend. Volunteers now provide a resource to HM Coastguard. This is a relationship that is gradually evolving in a pattern similar to the relationship between Coastguard and the volunteer RNLI lifeboat service.

Calshot Coastwatch

We visited Calshot Tower. This abandoned Coastguard viewpoint was recommissioned as a Coastwatch Station in 2010. It is well equipped, largely as a result of donations from corporate sponsors such as John Lewis. The following services are offered

  • Radar Watch
  • AIS Watch:
  • DSC Watch:
  • Radio: Listening watch on channels:  12 16 67
  • Radio: Channel 00: Listening watch and ready to transmit as authorised by Coastguard

This station has Declared Facility Status, which means that it has been inspected by the Coastguard and accepted as part of the national search and rescue resources.  That status requires considerable training and dedication from the volunteers.

Calshot station reports to MRCC Solent. It operates during daylight hours 7 days a week, every day except Christmas Day.

Up the Tower

Coastwatch CalshotThe tower  is accessed by a steep iron staircase climbing to 100 feet above sea level. The view is excellent, with visibility out to the Palmerston Forts beyond Spithead ; down the West Solent to Newtown, and up Southampton Water to Netley.

Coastwatch CalshotThree watch officers monitor the commercial traffic and are on the lookout for incidents. They can be alerted by listening to VHF radio, telephone, or just visual sighting through powerful binoculars. Immediately, Coastguard can be alerted to a possible incident and the incident will continue to be observed.  Staff are trained to plot the position of an incident from bearings, and estimate drift – not an easy task in the strong Solent tides. So far, Coastwatch does not have allocated VHF channels and may only transmit when authorised to do so by Coastguard.  It is a bit of a frustration.

With a major activity centre at Calshot, and the leisure traffic coming down Southampton Water and the Hamble, all water users in the area can feel safer because of the Calshot Coastwatch, working closely with H M  Coastguard and the adjacent RNLI lifeboat.

Coastwatch Calshot

For more details, visit the Coastwatch website at http://www.nci.org.uk/

Marine activities of the Coastguard

Marine Activities

The situation is that there were 18 Marine Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) (already reduced to 15), grouped into pairs. (Lee on Solent and Portland are a pair) This is so that resources can be shared. If any one of the coordination centres becomes overloaded or possibly even goes out of action (possibly because a JCB has gone through the telephone cables!) then the other MRCC station in the pair can take some of the strain. Each pair is responsible for a fixed area of coastline and sea with access to the radio communications and data for that area only.

The new arrangement will take advantage of modern communications and information technology using systems that have been tried and tested in the emergency services field but with some upgrading. When the programme is completed there will be a national network of 10 Operations Centres with a National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) at its hub located in Fareham. This national network will be fully flexible in that all data will be common and available to all and radio communications can be made available to each centre as required. Each centre, including the NMOC, will be responsible for an area of coast and sea on a day by day basis but the flexibility of the network allows Coastguard to increase or decrease the size of that area based on known and predicted risks and events. The NMOC will decide and direct the shape of the national network on a daily basis.


There will be significant gains in flexibility afforded by the national network such as the ability to allow centres to undertake team training whilst another centre(s) takes over their normal area of operations or if a centre is faced with a ‘Costa Concordia’ incident, the centre can be allowed to concentrate on that incident and its other activities and incidents can be handled by another centre(s).

Normally, SAR incidents in the Solent and mid-channel area will be initiated and co-ordinated by the NMOC. There will be 96 coastguard staff based at the NMOC and up to a quarter of those could be on duty at any time depending on the known and predicted risks and events.


 The flexibility of the network will allow operations to continue in the event of the loss of a centre and the  Data Centre at Fareham will be mirrored in Aberdeen, and the Coastguard Operations Centre at Dover is also a standby control centre in Dover that can be manned in the event of Fareham (and Aberdeen) being disabled.

It is the flexibility of having resources where they are best suited, coupled with the data and communications backup that represents the strength of the new system.

Managing Major Incidents

 Where a major incident (for example the grounding of the Napoli in Lyme Bay, or the shedding of cargo such as containers or timber in the Channel) occurs, the incident will either be managed or overseen by the NMOC but the Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP) will take command as at present.

Local knowledge

 HM Coastguard has not had visual watch since the late 1970s and there is clearly room to question whether the new arrangements will be sufficient to provide local knowledge in a search and rescue scenario. However, the local indigenous SAR resources ie RNLI Lifeboats and Coastguard Rescue Teams will continue to function as they do now and quite rightly, it is these assets which need to have the detailed local knowledge and that won’t change. Also, HM Coastguard is carrying out a joint project with Ordnance Survey to develop a vernacular database of local names in addition to those that appear on a map which will be available to all.

Pertinent questions of the Coastguard

“Will I continue to call Solent Coastguard on channel 67?”

If you use the call sign “Solent Coastguard” you will be answered.

“What will be the timing and content of VHF weather forecasts?”

There should be no change.  However the confusion which sometimes arises when both Portland and Lee on Solent are listing the various channels that could be used should disappear.

“What will be the role of the shore stations such as Hill Head and Selsey?”

The role of the Rescue Stations at Hill Head and Selsey will remain unchanged. The Hill Head station will be relocated to a new building on the Daedalus site.

“Will Coastguard continue to accept passage reports?  Will there be any changes in the action taken on the basis of passage reports?”

Coastguard will continue to accept passage reports and there will be no change in the action taken.  If a vessel fails to report arrival at its destination, search procedures will only be initiated in response to a shore based query, exactly as now.  (Experiments with taking action when a vessel has failed to report arrival led to a great deal of unnecessary waste of time as in many cases the vessel had simply and diverted to a different destination, or cancelled the passage without bothering to inform Coastguard.)

“Will there be any changes to the relationship between coastguard and the major emergency plans such as the Solfire plan operated in the Solent?”

There should be no change.  However the greater flexibility of the new system should make exercising such plans easier.

“Will Coastguard make greater use of the emerging NCI (National Coastwatch Institute) organisation?”

NCI will continue to provide its “spot, plot and report service” to HM Coastguard and provide additional information as requested by Coastguard.

“When Lee on Solent closes, where will I be able to dispose of all flares?”

This has not yet been determined but a facility is likely to be retained at Daedalus..

Airborne activities of the Coastguard

Air Borne Activities

 The changes in the air borne assets that will be available to Coastguard arise from a decision by the Ministry of Defence to withdraw from civil search and rescue.  As has been announced, from 2015, military SAR helicopters will be replaced by civilian SAR helicopters under a contract let by government to Bristow. The replacement will be complete by 2017. The civilian SAR helicopters will be based at 10 locations which are Manston, Lee on the Solent, Newquay, St Athan, Caernarvon, Prestwick, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Inverness, and Humberside. Bristow will use two types of aircraft, the Sikorsky S-92 from 5 bases and Augusta Westland 189 from 5 bases.

The Solent base will have the Augusta Westland 189.

Bristow have commented on their new contract. Read more

For those interested in the technical aspects, Bristows have issued a press pack full of interesting information

Coastal activities of the Coastguard

Coastal Activities

There will be no downsizing of the 356 Coastguard Rescue Teams around the UK coast as a result of the current reorganisation programme.  In the Solent the teams based at Hillhead, Selsey, Hayling, Portsmouth, Lymington, Southampton, Bembridge Newport, Ventnor, Ryde and Needles will continue to provide the same coastal search, rope, mud and shallow water rescue response as they do now. However, such is the value and importance of these front-line SAR assets that as part of the modernisation programme, the number of full time Coastguard Officers responsible for the leadership, management and training of all teams in the UK is being increased by 50%. Again, as part of the modernisation programme, for coastal operations, the coast is being divided into 18 Areas in which a full time Coastguard Area Commander supported by 4 or 5 Senior Coastal Operations Officers will be responsible for 20 or so volunteer Coastguard Rescue Teams containing 200 or more volunteers.

The present Training Centre at Highcliffe is planned to close and maritime operations training will re-locate to the NMOC and coastal operations training eg rope rescue, etc will re-locate to a new, purpose built training centre at Daedalus. This new build will also contain a new Rescue Station for the Hill Head Coastguard Rescue Team.