We have been talking with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency [MCA] about this incident and the issues it has raised.
With the information we have been given, it is clear that the outcome would essentially have been no different had Clyde been leading on incident coordination.
Both we and the MCA have taken the time to be accurate on this – to question, to answer, to explain, to listen, to understand and to digest.
This incident has seen a young life lost; and no one concerned, very much including the National Coastguard SOS campaigners, wishes to make ‘political’ capital of any kind from such a circumstance.
We went through the logged timeline together, discussing the detail on the ground.
For Argyll asked six key questions, which were answered with information included in the account below.
A core concern of ours has been neither to confer, nor encourage others to confer, responsibility for a lost life on coastguard officers who were clearly doing their level professional best at all times throughout this incident.
The incident log opened at 05.54 on Sunday morning, 25th November, with an incoming 999 call by mobile phone. The caller reported ‘three persons with one in a very bad way’ at a location ‘south of West Loch Tarbert, Loch Fyne by Fion Fort’.
The Belfast Coastguard operator had some knowledge of Loch Fyne and called back to establish the accuracy of the location given. At 06.06 the correct location – south of East Loch Tarbert in Loch Fyne and by Fionn Phort – was confirmed.
A MAYDAY relay with the original location given was transmitted and countered by one with the correct location. No vessels reported as being in the area.
Simultaneously the coastguard contacted:
- RAF Kinloss, responsible for aeronautical tasking, to request a Search and Rescue helicopter
- Tighnabruaich RNLI Inshore Lifeboat, to request a launch to the incident
- Tarbert Coastguard Rescue team, to request a search
The Tighnabruaich Inshore Life Boat got to the area, searching a relatively featureless stretch of coastline in the dark, called the casualties and asked for ‘a white light situation’ – essentially a flare or bright torch to help them home in on the specific location.
This was done and the Life Boat, finding the casualties ashore, took them to Tarbert slipway where the local volunteer coastguards were present to assist, with an ambulance waiting to take them to Lochgilphead’s Mid Argyll Hospital, 15-20 minutes away.
The SAR helicopter, on a two hour flight from Stornoway, was in the air but the ambulance, in place and waiting, was the quickest transfer option.
The young man who had fallen out of the double kayak died.
Since this part of the incident is out with MCA responsibility, it has no more information than the general public on the cause of death and is just as uncertain on the detail of this as everyone else.
Issue 1: Local knowledge
No one could or would argue that local knowledge of place names, their pronunciation variations [and in this part of the world many are Gaelic place names, as indeed was the case here, with Fionn Phort], location, topography, sea area and local sea conditions is anything but a saver of time and an avoidance of error – both contributing to greater chances of survival for the distressed.
But no single operator has inexhaustible knowledge of more than a limited area. ‘Local knowledge’ has its limits. Professional coastguard officers generally work around the stations and Clyde Coastguard campaigners themselves have told us that there is staff at Belfast with good knowledge of the Clyde sea area. It is fair to say that there could be Clyde station officers whose knowledge of the ins and outs of the complex Argyll coast would be no better than that of some of the staff at Belfast.
This is not a let out clause for Shipping Ministers and MCA top brass. ‘Local knowledge;’ with all its limitations, must never be at a discount. It is better and safer than no local knowledge.
In the event here, where an informed Clyde operator might have interrogated the caller on the spot, no more than a couple of minutes were lost between the Belfast operator’s acceptance and almost immediate querying of the first given location. No service was tasked to the wrong place.
Issue 2: Incident coordination
As we have said earlier, the rescue for this incident was coordinated from Belfast but with Clyde monitoring proceedings, able to see and hear what was happening.
The two stations were therefore effectively working together. We understand that the protocol in such circumstances allows the coordinating station to ask for input from the monitoring station – for example, on local knowledge of locations; and allows the monitoring station staff to volunteer any helpful information or expertise.
Should a major incident arise between now and the planned shut down of Clyde Coastguard on 18th December, we understand that a joint working operation would be enabled.
Issue 3: The nature of the incident
As was clear from the press release issued by the MCA at the time, they understood that they had three people on or in the water. There was no information of any kind to counter the scenario of a capsized kayaker in the water.
It was not until the police issued information the following day that Belfast Coastguard and the MCA [and most of the rest of us] realised that the incident – the fall into the water from the kayak – had happened on Saturday night, the night before the early morning distress call; that the trio had eaten and camped that night; and had only realised in the small hours that the one who had fallen in the water was in a bad way.
With other possible circumstances still unknown, this time lapse would currently appear to be the single greatest potential contributor to the death that followed.
Clyde would have had the same information and the same understanding of the situation as Belfast had.
Issue 4: Tasking a SAR helicopter
Following a Maritime Accident Investigation Branch report into the sinking of a fishing boat, in which Clyde Coastguard were criticised, control of the HM Coast Guard’s own SAR helicopters was incorporated with RAF Kinloss’s control of nationwide defence rescue assets.
HMCG funds 4 SAR helicopter bases, which operate in HMCG livery. The MOD provide 6 RAF and 2 RN SAR helicopter bases.
Overall control from RAF Kinloss is a more efficient use of such assets, with, for example, one aircraft on its way back to base but with enough in the tank to divert to attend an emergency without landing to refuel, or scrambling another SAR aircraft.
It also means that all available airborne rescue assets are tasked from central control to attend both maritime and mountain rescues – which is why HMCG coastguard aircraft are seen in operation on inland incidents.
In this incident, Belfast Coastguard were told by RAF Kinloss that Rescue 177 [the nearest SAR helicopter based at Prestwick] was ‘off state’. They do not know why this was the case but were told that Rescue 100, based at Stornoway and two hours flight time away, would attend.
Clyde, would have been in exactly the same position as Belfast, requesting an aircraft from RAF Kinloss and finding that the Stornoway helicopter was the best they could get.
Issue 5: Search before rescue
An inshore lifeboat has its own specific challenges. While the offshore guys have sea conditions to confront, an inshore service has local coastlines to comb, often, as here, in a relatively featureless stretch and for casualties with no visibility and in darkness.
It was fortunate here – on a particularly repetitive, remote coastline with a series of gentle indentations, that the casualty could deliver the ‘white light’ situation.
Obviously no rescue is possible until the casualties have been searched for and found.
In this case too, the Tarbert volunteer coastguard Search and Rescue team had to operate over difficult terrain, on a largely forested and rocky shoreside land mass with no paths and some cliffs. The location given, ‘by Fionn Phort’, was, as the crow flies, on or off the shore three miles south east of the Tarbert ferry slip.
Management of transfer to new coastguard arrangements
Since the start of this year, 2012, a team of technical, IT, operations and senior management staff from Belfast, Clyde and Stornoway coastguard stations have been working together on preparations for a smooth transfer of operations which have progressed very successfully.
This sad incident would not have been managed any differently or would have ended any differently had Clyde been coordinating and not Belfast.
The first plans of UK Shipping Ministers, with the compliance of the MCA’s CEO, Alan Massey, were to run the entire Scottish coastguard service from a single station – at Aberdeen on the west coast.
A modicum of common sense has seen the necessity to have an operational rescue coordination centre at Shetland, with oil and gas exploration and extraction burgeoning into the difficult Atlantic, west of Shetland.
Similarly, Stornoway was retained as guardian for the busy Minches and the difficult north west and north coasts.
Ireland was to going to follow suit, with a single station at Dublin coordinating incidents in the Irish Search and Rescue Region, but will be retaining it’s three stations at Dublin, Malin Head and Valencia – with staff adopting different work patterns aimed at improving effectiveness and efficiency.
We accept that, with work largely – mercifully – incident free, the current establishment is expensive for government and can be unrewarding for bored coastguard staff.
But local knowledge in the vast sea area now to be under the single control of Belfast Coastguard - the entire Northern Ireland coastline and the former Clyde area from the Mull of Galloway to Ardnamurchan Point and including all of the Argyll islands out to Coll and Tiree in the Atlantic – will be challenging. MCA are, however, designing systems to mitigate this risk. That itself is quite a challenge.
This concern is not just our own or that of the campaigners against the closure of ten of the UK’s coastguard stations, but it is shared by the UK Government’s Transport Select Committee, which has called two hearings on this very matter.
There is an issue with minsters appointed to posts in areas where they can have little prior knowledge – and with some not in their posts long enough to acquire much.