[Updated below] This is the most sensitive possible matter for all concerned, with the loss of a young man to his family and friends in the sea kayaking incident on Loch Fyne on Sunday morning, 25th November.
The incident has come on the heels of the very recent and controversial change of coastguard responsibilities for the massive and complex sea area formerly in the charge of the recently closed Clyde Coastguard.
There have been concerns in the profession at gaps in the information released on this rescue – and it should be noted at the outset that those concerned are not critical of Belfast Coastguard, which has been put it in invidious situation.
Following the new arrangements for coastguard cover of the Scottish coastline and in the interests of the public safety which is in their charge, duty staff at Belfast now require detailed local knowledge of a truly vast sea area.
This includes their own and now Clyde’s – which alone stretches from the Mull of Galloway to Ardnamurchan Point and includes the many Argyll inshore and offshore islands, 25 of which are inhabited.
A concerned former officer – not from the Clyde station – within the coastguard service and hearing of the concerns of some of his fellows asked for information and clarification and received the official information from the MCA below.
He does, however, note that there can be no great security with the timings given since he is aware that a reporter from the Times newspaper was given different timings by the MCA yesterday, 26th November.
The key situation is that, either way, it appears that there was confusion and that there were large gaps in time when tasking duties would have been carried out.
Record of events given
‘Initial call collection was at 05:59 hours on the 25th November 2012, the position given by the first informant was South of West Loch Tarbert, Loch Fyne by Fion Fort, Three persons with one in a very bad way. A MAYDAY RELAY message was broadcast at 06:09 hours reiterating the above position.
‘At 06:13 hours it was ascertained that the nearest Rescue Helicopter was R100, based at Stornoway, with an eta on scene of 2 hours plus.
‘At 06:06 hours the Mayday Relay was corrected to give the position as 2 miles south of East Loch Tarbet, Loch Fyne. [Ed: The mispelling here - 'Tarbet'. not 'Tarbert' - is potentially misleading in other circumstances. The difference between a 'Tarbet' over a 'Tarbert' is crucial in this part of the world where both exist in waterside locations.]
‘At 06:54 another updated Mayday Relay was prepared but not broadcast due to operator error.
‘At 07:17 the ILB [Ed: Inshore Life Boat - from Tighnabruaich] was on scene with the casualties.’
The first issue will be immediately familiar to Argyllachs – and would have been to Clyde Coastguard. The initial position report simply could not have been accurate. ‘West Loch Tarbert’ and ‘Loch Fyne’ are separated by the Kintyre peninsula.
Cold and distressed kayakers might have made an error in either direction.
- They might indeed have been south of West Loch Tarbert – which would have put them in or near the Sound of Gigha, on the Atlantic coast of Kintyre.
- Or they were indeed in Loch Fyne, and south of East Loch Tarbert, as later proved to be the case.
According to this record, the Tighnabruaich ILB arrived on scene some 1hr 1mins after the 999 call was made.
There is no mention of attempts by HMCG to task any rescue helicopter other than Stornoway.
This record makes no mention of tasking local Search and Rescue [SAR] teams, although it is the understanding of the coastguard officer who enquired for this report, that 25 minutes after the call came in, a team were indeed asked to deploy.
This means that the record provided is not complete – but there is no way of knowing how far it is incomplete.
No one concerned in this is making allegations against Belfast Coastguard or the MCA, [Maritime and Coastguard Agency].
There are, though, questions to be answered to clarify whether the coordination of this rescue would have been any different had it been dealt with by Clyde.
Did Coastguard officers at Belfast face a situation where they did not possess the relevant local knowledge which could have expedited the rescue operation?
Given the apparent delays, the National Coastguard SOS campaign feels that it is appropriate to ask that the Secretary of State for Transport should stop the closure programme immediately and conduct an investigation to establish what difficulties Coastguard officers at Belfast faced in dealing with this incident.
They ask also that both of the recently closed stations at Clyde and Forth should resume rescue coordination duties to ensure that effective SAR cover is maintained until a full report on any difficulties experienced in this incident has been prepared and assimilated.
We are asking the MCA for a full account of the incident and will report on this and any other matters as and when we can.
As a separate issue, we remain confused about kayakers being on the water before 6.00am at this time of the year. It would have been dark.
Update 11.15 27th November re MCA
We have started talking to the MCA but, with our own landline still out of service after two and a half weeks and working from a mobile blackspot, it is a frustrating for the MCA and for us.
We will continue the conversation later and report again then.
For the moment, we have established that:
The incident was created at 05.54 on 25th November when the operator took the call as described in the report above obtained by the former coastguard officer. The call was made from a mobile phone and not on VHF.
Clyde Coastguard is not officially closed until 18th December. However ‘closure’ remains a point of definition. Clyde’s communications. including its phones, have been routed to Belfast coastguard, which is now responsible for incidents in the former Clyde sea area.
The station is still officially regarded as a rescue coordination centre, even though it lacks communications – because those communications can be routed back to Clyde by the MCA, should they so decide.
This may perhaps raise the question of the circumstances that night dictate such a restored routing between now and 18th December.
Update 11.30 27th November
The former coastguard officer who has been enquiring about the record of the event, has had it reported to him that the accident actually happened the afternoon / evening before [on Saturday 24th November] and the lads made it to shore safely, lit a fire and made camp for the night.
This account – which is logical – says that it was not until the early hours of Sunday am that the friends discovered that the lad who had ended up ‘injured’ in some way, was in fact ill and needed medical evacuation from the area.