As the National Coastwatch Institution at Portland Bill celebrates its 20th year surveying our coastline and helping to save lives against all odds we look back at the courageous work of its volunteers.

From the Portland lookout station 75 watchkeepers, working in shifts, oversee 690 square metres of sea, acting and the visual and radio watch of the UK Maritime Coastguard Agency to which they report.

A vital cog in the machine that is Dorset Search and Rescue, the NCI works closely with all the emergency services including the RNLI, UK border agencies, Drug Alliance, Dorset Police and the marine force. 

This summer, the charity was given the seal of approval as The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, become the royal patron of the institution. 

Dorset Echo:

ON WATCH: The lookout Leonard Heath

Station manager Geoff Peters said: “To receive this honour is more than we could ever have dreamed of. 

“Our dedicated team at Portland carry out their watches relentlessly in all winds and weather, never knowing what can occur during their watch. 

“To have this endorsement is really the icing on the cake.”

The nationwide NCI charity came into being in 1994 following the closure of coastguard stations around the UK by the government as a means of cost saving. 

Following the death of two young fishermen in front of the Bass Point lookout in Cornwall just after the closure, a group of mariners, led by Captain Starling Lark, campaigned to reopen the stations.

To date, 52 stations around the British Isles have reopened and are manned by more than 2,00 trained volunteers. 
There are three other stations in Dorset – Lyme Bay, St Alban’s Head and Swanage.

Each station is run independently and is responsible for securing its own funding, management and volunteers. 

Portland Bill was one of the last coastguard lookouts to close in 1997 as it was considered vital given the treacherous sea area and the infamous Portland Race. 

Mr Peters said: "When the coastguard closed down there was an emptiness that needed to be filled. 

"We are just so vulnerable up here. I understood the problem and felt I wanted to help. Most of the volunteers do it for that reason, to give something back to the community."

When the NCI took over the Portland lookout they were left with a dilapidated station initially built as part of the war effort in 1934. 

After joining the team in 2000, Mr Peters started a major fundraising campaign and in 2004 the lookout underwent a complete rebuild. 

A keen sailor and long-term supporter of the charity since its inception, HRH The Princess Royal headed to the Bill to officially open the station in 2006. 

The lookout is manned in four-hour shifts, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. Between them, the volunteers give back 9,417-man hours back to the community every year excluding time spent on call and in training. 

All volunteers must undergo six weeks intensive training regardless of their prior experience. 

Dorset Echo:

Unveiling of plaque at the Ocean Hotel, Southwell by Richard Drax MP to launch the new solar panels which have been installed at the Coastwatch lookout on Portland

Mr Peters said: "Our watchkeepers come from all walks of life which is something we value most. We’ve got pilots, a retired submarine captain, plumbers, electricians, ex-coastguards you name it.”

While on duty volunteers monitor all shipping, leisure and commercial craft using the waters as well as watching for walkers, climbers and anyone using the land and sea around the Bill. 

The team also give regular weather checks to the coastguard at the Maritime Operations Centre in Fareham. 

Inside, the lookout is equipped with the latest technology including a state-of-the-art radar system, up-to-the minute weather monitoring systems, high powered binoculars, and an Automatic Identification System (AIS). 

Watchkeepers ensure safe passageway of all ships through the Portland Race and the raggedy Shambles sandbank. 

Di Chester, a former coastguard who has volunteered for the NCI for 16 years, said: “We spend most of our time watching the Race. When it is wild it is like a tumble dryer out there, once you’re in, it spins you around until it decides to spit you back out. 

“Really we’re just keeping an eye on everything out there. When we tell people we are here, I think they feel quite relieved and reassured.”

Last year alone they logged 15,962 vessels and were involved in more than 160 incidents, all of which could have ended very differently had Coastwatch not been there. 

Dorset Echo:

Sundown at the Coastwatch Station at Portland Bill. Photo by Gerry Whit

In 2012, the team were honoured with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the highest possible accolade for voluntary service in the UK. 

The HRH Princess Royal and the Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence presented the team with the prestigious award as they returned to the station to open the newly built training centre. 

Director of Portland Port Rupert Best, who nominated the NCI, said: “These volunteers are splendid people, who do a splendid job which is all the more necessary with the increase in leisure sailing around our coast and the departure of the of the coastguard helicopter.”

The NCI receives no funding from the government or local authority and relies entirely by donations from the public to help meet the £8,000 yearly running costs. 

To make a donation or enquire about joining the team contact station manager Geoff Peters on 01305 837216.