Froward Point - National Coastwatch
Forget eBay, ignore YouTube and sign out of Facebook – as far as I am concerned, there’s a new cult website to occupy those idle hours at the computer, writes Mark Simpson.
Instead, I point my browser to www.nci-frowardpoint.org.uk/ and then select ‘live weather’. In an instant, I can monitor wind speed, barometric pressure, cloud cover and rainfall etc, all at the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) station at the mouth of the River Dart. My wife calls it ‘nautical porn” possibly because of her bemused response to my exclamations during March’s windy weather – “goodness dear, the wind gusted to 67 knots on 10th March!”
Many boat users on the Dart are probably already aware of the NCI station on Froward Point but perhaps have not realised that the website now boasts online access to all matter of weather instruments and a webcam showing the sea state at the river entrance. With a few clicks of the computer mouse, you can study graphs and records of wind speed, barometric pressure, rainfall, temperature etc in the previous hour, past 24 hours, 7 days or month. Pure bliss for the nautical nerd but really useful when planning a hop along the coast or a day’s sailing or racing.
The origins of National Coastwatch Institution
The advent of the satellite and radio-based distress systems accelerated the process of phasing out routine visual watch by HM Coastguard. An enquiry as early as 1931 had predicted that increasing use of radio would render visual watch unnecessary. But while commercial ships are required to have the equipment to benefit from automated distress systems, small craft are not. Consequently many leisure craft and small fishing vessels do not have appropriate equipment.
In 1994, at Bass Point, on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, two fishermen lost their lives in sight of a recently closed Coastguard lookout. A group of local people set up an organisation to re-open it, and reinstated a visual watch manned by unpaid volunteers.
The project was a success, and other areas followed suit. The National Coastwatch Institution was launched. There are now more than 36 stations in operation, with more to follow.
The primary aim of the NCI is to assist HM Coastguard by reporting incidents to them when a station has become aware that there is an emergency, but for which there has been no radio distress traffic. Perhaps a distress flare has been seen, a vessel has capsized, or someone has been injured on the cliffs. If requested, the NCI station can supply details of local sea and weather conditions.
The Froward Point Station
In 2002 it had been recognised that an NCI station at Froward Point would be justified given the volume of small craft traffic, and that there was a building with the potential to be converted for use as a Watch Station.
The building dated back to the Second World War, when it was the Observation Post for the Brownstone coastal defence battery. During 1940 the land at Froward Point was requisitioned and a coastal defence battery built. Situated on the eastern side of the mouth of the river Dart, the area has commanding views across Start Bay, which helped in its defence role. The site consisted of two gun positions, two searchlights and a variety of other support buildings, some of which can still be seen.
The area is now owned and managed by The National Trust and is sited within the Froward Point Site of Special Scientific Interest and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The South West Coast Path runs through the middle of the complex and it is accessible from Brownstone car park via a military road, which was built to serve the battery. It is not only important historically but it is one of the few coastal batteries which remains largely intact in this country.
Brownstone Battery was manned by approximately 230 soldiers of the 52nd Bedfordshire Yeomanry Regiment between 1940 and 1942. They moved on when the American forces arrived, but the site was then operated by the Home Guard under the auspices of the Royal Artillery until the end of the war.
The Battery was finally decommissioned in 1956. A caretaker remained on site from the end of the war until the area was returned to the estate of Higher Brownstone in 1956 from whom it had been requisitioned.
The National Trust bought the site in 1982 as part of the Enterprise Neptune Campaign to protect unspoilt coastline. At the time of its construction, there was more tree cover with a large part of the area dominated by Monterey and Corsican pines planted in 1904. This no doubt aided concealment of the battery from enemy aircraft and from RAF aerial photographs taken in 1942 it is difficult to pick out the buildings. The severe storm of January 1990 blew down a large number of mature trees and therefore exposed the site.
NCI Froward Point operational from 2005
Agreement was reached with the National Trust in 2004 to re-use the site. After much hard work by volunteers and with technical support from the Royal Naval College, the daunting task of producing an effective station began.
Training watches started in mid 2005. Over 50 volunteers have completed the classroom training, and a high proportion have now gained sufficient practical experience to pass assessment as Watchkeeper. The aim is to reach sufficient numbers to man the station 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The planned “on watch” times are 09:00 to 17:00 in summer extending to 20:00 in the busy months of June, July, August, and September, and 10:00 to 16:00 in winter. Volunteers are also currently manning the station during Royal Dart Yacht Club racing on Wednesday evenings. Individual watches are 4 hours in summer, 3 hours in winter.
The station is equipped with binoculars, telescopes, marine VHF radios, radar, weather instruments, and the necessary charts. A visual, radio and radar watch is thus possible when the station is manned. Station Manager is Mike Povey, a Kingswear resident (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
For conditions at Froward Point telephone: 07976 505649 (09:00 to 17:00 summer,10:00 to 16:00 winter)
Volunteers and donations required
Volunteers are expected to be prepared to undertake an average of at least two watches per month, and to attend classroom and “on the job” training. This entails two hour sessions devoted to background and theory, once a week for four weeks, followed by practical experience alongside experienced watchkeepers. (For more information, please contact: Mike Boumphrey (Training) email: email@example.com)
The initial fundraising to refurbish and equip the watch station was very successful raising over £30,000, thanks to the generosity of many individuals, companies, and other organisations. But although watchkeepers are unpaid volunteers, and as much installation and maintenance work as possible is done by team members, that still leaves substantial running costs to be met.
(If you would like to contribute, please contact: Jim Gibson (Treasurer) email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Friends of Froward Point consists of an energetic and imaginative group of ladies who organise fund raising and social activities for the station and its watchkeepers. When formed in 2005, the Group quickly raised £4,500 in 12 months and donations are collected through collecting boxes, coffee mornings and one-off events. (If you would like to help, please contact: Anne Kelsey (Chairman, Friends of Froward) – 01803 752569 email: email@example.com)
First published April 2008 By The Dart