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24th November 2017. This year the National Coastwatch Institution at Portland Bill celebrates its 20th year of keeping a watch over the Dorset coastline and helping to save lives.

From their Portland Bill lookout station, 75 watchkeepers, working in shifts, keep watch over nearly 700 square kilometers of sea, acting as the visual and radio watch of the UK Maritime Coastguard Agency to which they report. A vital part of the machine that is Dorset Search and Rescue, the NCI works closely with all the emergency services including the RNLI, HM Coastguard, UK Border Force and Dorset Police. 

As a nationwide charity the NCI was formed in 1994 as a result of the closure of all the Coastguard visual watch stations around the UK. Following the deaths of two local fishermen below the closed Bass Point lookout in Cornwall, a group of residents worked to re-open the station. Since then the National Coastwatch Institution has grown to over 50 stations manned by over 2,200 volunteers. Each station is run independently and is responsible for securing its own funding, management and volunteers, and there are three other stations in Dorset at Lyme Bay, St Alban’s Head and Swanage. This summer, the charity was given the seal of approval as The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, become the royal patron of the institution. 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.”

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 and 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

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. 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.”

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. 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. Watchkeepers ensure safe passageway of all ships through the Portland Race and the raggedy Shambles sandbank. The team also provide regular weather checks to the coastguard at the Maritime Operations Centre in Fareham. 

Di Chester, a former coastguard who has volunteered with 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.”

The photograph (courtesy of the Dorset Echo) shows John Huggins, Peter Tamblin, Nick Chester, Geoff Peters and Di Chester

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