Two centuries of safety at sea, smuggling – and the Coastguard

This year marks the 200th anniversary of HM Coastguard, the emergency service responsible for rescuing people in distress – and saving lives along the UK’s coast and at sea.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 1 Aug 2022, 14:47 BST
One of Britain's most famous views, the 'Coastguard Cottages' in the foreground were built around the ...

One of Britain's most famous views, the 'Coastguard Cottages' in the foreground were built around the 1820s to keep watch on the seas around Cuckmere Haven and the Seven Sisters cliffs – and are as old as the service itself. In recent years the iconic cottages, along with many like them around the UK's coastline, have been threatened by coastal erosion. 

Photograph by eye35.pix / Alamy

A tattoo on the arm of Tom Wright, area commander of HM Coastguard Coastal Operations, perfectly encapsulates the history of the emergency service. The ink depicts smugglers in a cave as well as a Breeches Buoy, an old rescue technique that combined a ring float with a zip line to winch people to shore. They may be unlikely bedfellows, but revenue and rescue have developed hand in hand over the last two centuries to create an emergency service that helped more than 36,000 people in distress last year.

In its original incarnation, becoming a coastguard was something of a plum job for Royal Navy sailors, who were lavishly paid (three shillings per day) and entitled to a share of the prizes they seized from smugglers. The Admiralty took care to appoint sailors with a certificate from their captains of three years’ zealous active service on ships of war, an incentive credited with “promoting alacrity in the performance of duty in our navy,” according to Sir James Graham.

'Magic lantern' slides – monochrome photographs coloured after development using oils or supplemented to other special effects – show a fantastical scene from 1890, and the life of a Cornish coastguard. 

Photograph by HM Coastguard

Coastguards weren't just on the watch for people in distress on the coastline – part of their task was to prevent trafficking of goods and illegal plundering of wrecks. 

Photograph by HM Coastguard

The rewards had to be generously high, given the profits available to contraband smugglers. By 1743, half the tea drunk in Britain was illegally imported, and duties on goods such as silk, coffee, brandy and gin were just as punishingly high.

“Whenever a ship so laden appeared oft the coast, the whole of the peasantry were ready to assist in landing and secreting her cargo, confident that they were to be well paid for the risks they ran,” said Colonel Davies MP in 1824.

Secret ship-to-shore signals, rendezvous on moonless nights and the concealment of barrels in caves and hidden tunnels were not just glamorised tales from fiction. A cup of tea or a tot of brandy was an expensive treat in 18th and 19th century Britain. Duties on imports were so high that they proved self-defeating, with the Treasury forced to offer “exorbitant rewards” to catch smuggled spirits. These rewards were so generous, in fact, that smugglers were suspected of colluding with Customs officials to let themselves get caught in return for a share of the rewards.

A historic coastguard lookout station at Sizewell Gap, Suffolk. Many of the old lookouts have been repurposed into residences, or bothies; some, such as this, are listed buildings. 

Photograph by Clynt Garnham Suffolk / Alamy

Import revenues were too valuable to ignore for a country seeking income to fund the Napoleonic Wars, leading the Board of Customs to set up the Preventive Water Guard (PWG) in 1809, tasked with patrolling bays and coves to catch smugglers. Six years later the PWG came under the direct control of the Treasury, which recruited Royal Navy seaman and fishermen to crew PWG boats and patrol the shore in bad weather. Their mission quickly extended to protecting shipwrecked vessels and cargoes from looters.

The PWG was the in-shore branch of a three-pronged attack to combat smuggling, working alongside the shore-based Riding Officers and the off-shore sloops of the Revenue Cruisers. On January 15, 1822, these three services were officially amalgamated into the Coast Guard.

In the two centuries since, this has developed into HM Coastguard, with 310 Coastguard Rescue Teams – made up largely of 3,500 dedicated volunteers – tasked with in-shore, mud and cliff rescues along the UK’s 11,000-mile coastline. Counteracting smuggling is no longer high on the to do list, but playing an integral part of the smooth running of 2021’s G7 meeting in Cornwall and Cop26 in Glasgow were very much on its agenda.

HM Coastguard's operations room at Falmouth, Cornwall, in 1997. 

Photograph by HM Coastguard

The coastguard's joint rescue coordination centre in Fareham, Hampshire. As an emergency service, the coastguard helps mobilise air and sea assets to assist in emergencies around the UK coastline. 

Photograph by HM Coastguard

Maritime Minister Robert Courts describes HM Coastguard as “the backbone of our maritime sector,” while Claire Hughes, Director of HM Coastguard, pays tribute to the “volunteers and the staff who throughout two centuries have continued to strive to keep people safe at the coast and out at sea. We always have and always will respond to those in distress.”

The agency’s Rescue Co-ordination Centres (RCC) marshal the response to mayday and 999 emergency calls, attending to more than 33,000 incidents annually. It is responsible for tasking search and rescue helicopters, lifeboats (operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution), and its own rescue teams that cover waters too shallow for lifeboats as well as helping people in peril on mudflats and cliffs.

Tom Wright joined HM Coastguard as a volunteer in 2004 and became full time four years later – he is now area commander for the busy coastline of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, with a staff of six supported by 220 volunteers.

“Emergency calls are graded as ‘distress’, which signals a grave and imminent danger to life; an ‘alert’, which means a possible injury to a crew or a broken-down vessel; and ‘uncertain’, which require more information”

“All the Coastguard volunteers are shore based and trained in search techniques to find missing people. They are all trained in casualty care and water safety and rescue, so we can look after ourselves and our team members as well as persons in the water,” says Wright. “They will also be part of a mud or rope rescue team, depending on whether the local area has cliffs or mudflats.”

The teams are unpaid and imbued with the volunteer ethos. “I’ve lost count of the number of Sunday dinners that I have walked out on, and the friends and family I’ve left in queues for shopping when an emergency call came in,” adds Wright. “Being a coastguard attracts that type of person.”

His father too has been a coastguard for over 50 years, and serving together has been a privilege, he says – grinning at the memory of the first time he ever heard his father swear.

Emergency calls are graded by the RCC as ‘distress’, which signals a grave and imminent danger to life; an ‘alert’, which means a possible injury to a crew or a broken-down vessel; and ‘uncertain’, which require more information. The centre then tasks the most appropriate search and rescue mission, whether that be a helicopter, a lifeboat, coastguard rescue team or fire and police service. In many cases it might be all five services.

Coastguard Mud Rescue team rescue two women stuck in a Canadian canoe in Chichester Harbour. Although some staff are emplyed by the service, like Mountain Rescue, the majority are volunteers.

Photograph by Michael Austen / Alamy

“The weather and the time of year play a huge factor in the type of incidents to which we respond,” says Wright. “Dorset is a hotspot for tourism, so in summer we will be dealing with a lot of children who have gone missing on a beach, walkers who have injured themselves on the coast path, and climbers who have fallen. We will also face a lot of broken-down pleasure vessels.”

Incident numbers decline in winter but become more serious in nature, including despondent searches for people who have decided to take their own lives.

After the spate of named storms such as Dudley and Eunice, which saw thrill-seekers flock to the coast in search of a selfie in front of a towering wall of wave, and with another busy summer likely, Wright is keen to impress on people the importance of safe and sensible behaviour at the coast.

A drone (bottom left) flies in formation with an S92 helicopter and a King Air surveillance aircraft. Drones will form part of the Coastguard's air fleet when a new phase of the service – nicknamed UKSAR2G – comes into effect in 2024, and is due to replace or upgrade some existing services.

Photograph by HM Coastguard

“The trouble is that water doesn’t pose a natural fear in people,” he says. “If there were wildfires or police officers running around in hazardous suits, then people would stay away, but unfortunately they want to get a picture of waves crashing above the cliffs.”

As coastguards, he and his team spend a lot of time on preventative work, encouraging people to stay away from the water when conditions are dangerous. Sometimes the incidents they face appear both daft and extremely serious, such as protestors supergluing themselves to the end of a pier at low tide.

“Understand what is happening with the weather and tides; seek advice where you can from lifeguards on beaches or from other beach users, especially if you are stand-up paddleboarding or kite surfing, and if you have any doubts, don’t go out,” says Wright.

“Always tell someone where you are going and how long you are going for. And try not to go alone.”

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