Weston Coastguard: The volunteers providing search and rescue along Somerset’s coast
PUBLISHED: 12:03 09 July 2019
Whether it’s cliff, water or Weston’s infamous mudflats, there’s a rescue team on hand for any emergency the coastline throws at them, as Chrissy Harris discovers
It's Monday evening and Dean Jackson has just finished work.
Rather than enjoying a relaxing night at home, the community and environmental officer is preparing his heavy-duty mud rescue kit, ready to use in case of a call-out.
Dean and his six fellow teammates here at Weston-super-Mare Coastguard Station in Locking are just a text message away from heading out into the night to help people in distress on our coast.
Every hour of every day, this group of volunteers, drawn from all backgrounds and walks of life, is on standby to carry out everything from rescuing stricken holidaymakers, caught out by Weston's infamous sticky mud and fast-moving tides, to searching for missing people or dealing with stranded marine life on the shoreline.
The job is tough, varied and unpaid, but Dean and his teammates do it without hesitation because they want to.
"Every time that pager goes off, it's like the first time," says Dean, a 'coastie' for five years. "The adrenalin kicks in and you just go."
"Didn't you turn up to the station in your pyjamas once?" chips in station officer Andy Sole.
"What were they? Buzz Lightyear?"
"Mickey Mouse, actually," replies Dean and the room erupts into laughter.
Despite the gravity of their responsibility, Weston Coastguard Rescue Team is a tight-knit group, with all the banter and camaraderie that entails.
Some have been volunteering for two years, others more than 15, but they are all passionate about being part of the coastguard - a role often misunderstood by the public.
"The amount of times people confuse us with the RNLI," says Jeff Gunton, who, like his teammates, is at great pains to point out that they don't have a boat. "We guard the coast, the clue's in the name!"
Retired police officer Bill Haden explains further: "Basically, we cover the low water mark and back to the promenade. That's us."
HM Coastguard is an emergency service, which provides search and rescue at the coast and at sea.
When someone's in trouble, a 999 call alerts the coastguard operations centre and rescue teams like Weston, which covers around 15 miles of coastline from the River Axe at Bleadon to Woodspring Bay, are dispatched to the scene.
Sometimes lifeboats or helicopters will be drafted in, depending on the situation.
All of Weston's team members are highly trained in cliff, water and mud search and rescue, with access to the very latest equipment and technology, packed into the back of their distinctive blue and yellow Mitsubishi 4x4.
Ask these guys, though, and they will tell you it's the mud that takes up most of their time.
"People don't understand what happens in Weston," says Matt Greatorex, deputy station officer. He points out that the area has the second largest tide in the world.
"If you get stuck, the mud won't kill you but the tide will," he says. "You won't outrun it. It's so fast."
Each team member has his own muddy story. There was the bloke who borrowed his dad's luxury Range Rover and got it stuck for more than five hours after copying a stunt he saw on TV's Top Gear.
Then there was the group of 30 school children who arrived here from the north of the country, having never seen the sea before. They ran straight for it and quickly became stranded.
Each time, specialist equipment, plus 'mud techs' (like Dean) are used to help stricken people before the tide reaches them. It's exhausting work and each mud rescue involves up to five hours of kit cleaning afterwards, but it's all part of the service.
"It's what we're trained to do," says Andy Sole, admitting that it's sometimes tough being constantly on-call. "Even if I'm putting the bins out late at night, the first thing I do when I'm back inside is check the phone. You can never really switch off."
Weston's team of seven is just about to increase to 13 after a recruitment drive pulled in new volunteers.
It will certainly help spread the load - covering such a huge, complex landscape has been a big task for such a small team.
The new recruits face an intense training programme and will need to be fully up to speed on what it takes to be part of life here: a constant supply of chocolate biscuits and the ability to have a laugh when the time comes.
"Oh, here's Ross Windsor," says Bill as his teammate walks in to the training briefing. "He's related to royalty…"
"Yeah, the Corgis!" comes a voice from the other side of the room.
There's more ribbing as the teas and coffees are handed out, but then it's back to the business of checking through kit and waiting for the call to come in.
"We've always been the service that no-one really knows about," says Andy. "It's time for that to change.
Weston Coastguard Rescue Team was called out 115 times last year.
This year, incidents they have attended include: a dog that had fallen over the edge of Brean Down; reports of two fishermen in difficulty in the mud near Black Rock (they were quickly helped out of danger); a person in the water to the north side of the Grand Pier; reports of a person entering the water opposite the Premier Inn; a person in difficulty on Birnbeck Island and reports of a missing person on the seafront in the vicinity of the Cabot Court Hotel.
To find out more, follow Weston-super-Mare Coastguard Rescue Team on Facebook or visit coastguardsafety.campaign.gov.uk.