Thursday, 20 April 2006

Coastal safety

I keep an eye on the website of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The Coastguard station here in Stornoway is the coordinating centre for much of their activity in the West of Scotland. They can call on lifeboats, helicopters and other sea- and aircraft to come to the aid of any that require it. Stornoway Coastguard doesn't just cover the Minches, it also deals with any incidents out in the Atlantic. In recent weeks, a fishing boat started to take on water more than 200 miles west of Lewis. A helicopter was sent out to drop off a pump. It only had 25 minutes to do so, as it was operating at the limits of its capacity.

In the period that I've been in Lewis, there have been a number of cases of men being swept overboard from their vessels, out in the Atlantic. This is almost invariably fatal, unless the casualty is retrieved from the water immediately. More often than not, the fisherman do not wear buoyancy aids, as they are in the way. The water in the North Atlantic is only between 9 and 14 degrees C, which means you can only survive for at best 45 minutes in such cold conditions. A full search and rescue effort will be launched, using any nearby vessels, helicopter and RAF Nimrod reconnaisance planes. I have not heard that such efforts were successful in a man overboard situation - I hope I'm wrong.

It isn't just out at sea that the Coastguard looks after people. When walking near the sea, particularly in rough weather, there are risks. Cliffs may crumble, something that is particularly the case in Lewis. Last summer, a French visitor went missing from the Youth Hostel at Gearrannan - he was thought to have gone for a stroll. When you walk east, along the coast from the Blackhouse Village, for a short distance you skirt the edges of the cliff, pictured below.
Cliff edge near Gearrannan
When the Coastguard mounted a rescue effort the next morning, the Frenchman's body was found at the bottom of a 100 ft high cliff. It is assumed that he slipped on muddy ground at the clifftop. It is advisable to stay at least 3 metres / 10 feet away from any edges, or at least take great care. When venturing out into a tidal area, you should consult a tidal table - for the islands, these are printed in the Stornoway Gazette. Tidal predictions are available on-line, for many ports around the UK coastline.

IN ANY EMERGENCY around the coast DIAL 999 and ask for COASTGUARD. ]]>

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