‘More than 1,500 call outs ...but just two thank-yous’

The cargo ferry Riverdance which got into trouble in severe weather conditions in the Irish Sea near Cleveleys
The cargo ferry Riverdance which got into trouble in severe weather conditions in the Irish Sea near Cleveleys
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Lytham Coastguard team patrols one of the busiest stretches of the coastline in the country

Sat in the Coastguard centre overlooking St Annes’ golden beach, station officer Paul Little makes a surprising, and for some readers, startling revelation.

We’ve been speaking for around half an hour when he reveals only two – count them – two people out of 1,500 call-outs, have ever thanked his team for their efforts.

“I think it’s because people think we are part of the Government and don’t appreciate us – amazing really – we certainly don’t do it for the glory,” he adds.

For the team of 11, on stand-by 24 hours a day, seven days a week, managing a stretch of coast which runs from Red Bank Road in Bispham to the Tickled Trout, near Preston, is an unforgiving task.

The role remains as challenging as ever – last year, the Lytham Coastguard team were involved in close to 200 call-outs – among the busiest in the country.

In the past month, call-outs have involved managing the search and rescue of two jet skiers, re-uniting two children with their parents in separate incidents on the beach, and arranging for a dead porpoise to be buried – and those all took place on one busy Saturday.

As Paul explains, the life of a coastguard is nothing if not varied – and hectic.

He adds: “Last year we did 198 call-outs, and that puts us as the busiest team in the country, or certainly one of them – we certainly are the busiest in the North.

“We have a summer season peak for July and August, but as it happens it has started earlier – up to this point there have been 79 incidents (up to 85 since we spoke) – last year that would have put us at the beginning of July.”

A busy start to the year began in January with some of the worst weather conditions to batter the UK in decades.

“It started off busy because of the storms, although Blackpool and Lytham St Annes got away lightly – if it had been coming from the West rather than the South West we would have had more structural damage. In this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, people put themselves in danger. Part of our job is to make sure they don’t – the bad weather lasted for 10 days. It then went quiet, and as the weather has improved it has gone mad. We’ve seen more people doing silly things and getting into trouble.

“Then a few Saturdays ago it was certainly the busiest May day I have seen. In the summer we may get seven jobs in a day, normally four, maybe five – but that Saturday was unusual.

“We had a medical evacuation, and a couple of missing children – this lad on the sand dunes was playing and lost sight of where he was. Then we had a Falcon parachute display landing, where another went missing. Then we have to deal with it.”

Across the country, around 3,500 coastguard members work at 380 stations. It is the coastguard’s legal responsibility to manage any incident, responding to a 999 call and organising the next steps of any emergency.

From there, the RNLI – which Paul adds is often confused as being one and the same as the coastguard – is used as an asset, on hand when a sea rescue is required.

Other coastguard stations, such as Fleetwood and Southport provide support, while a police helicopter can be called out for assistance.

Paul started as a coastguard eight years ago, and has worked the last two and a half years as station officer.

He reveals his first few weeks were a “baptism of fire,” as Lytham’s cockle beds were opened to pandemonium in 2011.

He adds: “It was chaos.

“We had prepped for it but did not anticipate the numbers – there was 480 licenses and around 800 people there. People weren’t interested whether they would be caught or not – we had some wearing balaclavas. That was an eye-opener. We learned a lot from that.

“We closed the beds early, but once had three guys out in the middle of the night – one of their family got in touch to call for help.

“Their boat was in the river in the dark – helicopters, lifeboats were launched – loads of ambulances came from Trafford because they thought it was going to be like Morecambe Bay. Fortunately. they were rescued.”

For Paul, dealing with the range of call-outs continues to be eventful.

He addeds: “We had an old bomb on the beach a few months ago, while a buoy was washed up not far from here in the storms. Cars in the sea are common – we had a light aircraft a few years ago which crashed in the sea, when two people died.

“We also had the Riverdance ferry (which ran aground at Anchorsholme) a few years ago, then the helicopter crash in Morecambe Bay.

“We will also deal with three or four drownings a year – not only do you deal with the casualty as best you can, but members of their family and public, but you have got to be able to talk to them and interview them.

“It’s a special sort of skill – some of my lads couldn’t do it.

“But the job is enjoyable – every job is varied. It is the sort of thing where if you didn’t enjoy it you would leave quickly. You have to get on with the general public too.

“A lot of the time you are saving people from their own insanity, but you have to be good to them and treat them with respect.”

As well as dealing with call-outs, Paul can often be found at the coastguard centre in Clifton Drive North, St Annes, prepping equipment.

He says the job is more varied than most think, with other issues including dealing with unexploded flares: “They get washed ashore and kids pick them up, thinking they are lightsabers – they don’t realise they could explode.”

Other requests include the reporting of any dead animals – whales, dolphins, sturgeon and porpoises – one of which washed up this month.

He adds: “Because of that we have to take measurements for the Natural History Museum – it’s a two- page A4 thing.

“We photograph it and send details – if it is a pristine carcass, people come up and strip it back to the bones for display.”

Paul, who works from home for BT, says future challenges remain for the service, with funding cuts resulting in Liverpool – Lytham’s control office – set to close early next year.

“It concerns me as we have a rapport with people around there (Liverpool),” he says. “We show them round the coast, show hot spots and gives a mental picture. I do not believe the new people will be allowed to do that.

“They will put the onus on us.We need to improve people’s stupidity really – their own common sense – things like people going into the water after their dogs.

“The dogs get out alive and the people might not.”

The team is also looking to recruit more members.

Paul adds: “We are looking for people aged 30 and upwards – they tend to be a bit more mature, settled in jobs and available during the day.”

But as Paul knows all to well, whoever takes on the job of a coastguard has to be prepared for any eventuality, with Paul’s wife, Cheryl, a Fylde councillor who introduced him to the position, often understanding of his role.

He adds: “The other night, me and Cheryl were going for an Indian in St Annes, when I had a call saying we were needed.

“I dropped her off at 7.15, thinking locating a few jet skiers wouldn’t take too long, and got in at midnight!

“She had gone there and was sat on her own all night.”

All in a day and night’s work for our coastguards.

If you are interested in joining the team, email lytham.coastguard@gmail.com.

For more information on the service follow the coastguard’s Twitter feed: @LythamCG