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Last Updated: Friday, 23 November 2007, 16:44 GMT
Rescue aided from 8,000 miles away
by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Coastguards. Picture courtesy Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Coastguards get distress calls from around the world
When the cruise ship M/S Explorer started sinking in the Antarctic, the coastguards at Falmouth in Cornwall got a call for help.

It was the first stage of an operation in which 154 people were evacuated.

Despite being more than 8,000 miles away, Falmouth was central to the operation because it holds the Search and Rescue (SAR) plans including deck layouts and other safety details for the Explorer.

So when Chilean coastguards got the first distress call from the Explorer, it called Falmouth for the SAR plans.

Stricken tanker

Cruise ships like the Explorer have SAR plans which are held by one coastguard station which is used as a single point of contact if the ship is in trouble.

Falmouth keeps the plans for the Explorer because it regularly visits the Isles of Scilly and it keeps similar plans for hundreds of UK-registered ships.

The 24-hour team in Falmouth also get about six emergency beacon alerts a day and about the same number of direct satellite distress calls.

Falmouth coastguard HQ. Picture courtesy Maritime and Coastguard Agency
The Falmouth operation is staffed 24 hours a day
The team also has to deal with its own local waters, 660,000 square miles around Cornwall.

There are four or five coastguards on duty at any time and it is their job to either co-ordinate the rescue operation themselves or alert local coastguards, the military and ships in the area.

In 2002 Falmouth Coastguards put out an international alert after pirates began attacking a cargo ship off the east African coast.

In the same year a rescue of a stricken chemical tanker off Brazil was aided by the language skills of one of the watch officers who was able to guide a Spanish-speaking member of the crew.

They also helped four sailors who abandoned ship when she caught fire in the Adriatic in March last year and in the same month helped a solo yachtsman in difficulty off the coast of French Guiana.

It's a big job and we want to be recognised for it
Andrew Cattrell, Maritime and Coastguard Agency

And in August they co-ordinated the rescue of almost 60 people suspected of being trafficked off the Libyan coast after being abandoned without supplies in a leaking boat.

Falmouth Coastguards sent a distress call to ships in the area and contacted the Italian and Maltese authorities as well as the British Embassy in Tripoli.

Strike fear

Last year Falmouth also co-ordinated the rescue of two Atlantic rowers who had capsized, taking into account wind and tides to pin-point their position at night for a yacht to rescue them.

Trawler crew
Six trawlermen died in 2001
There have also been the disappointments such as the loss of six fishermen who failed to make it to a life raft when a German trawler sank in the Atlantic in 2001.

Falmouth coastguard Andy Cattrell said: "We are used to it.

"You just have to get on with the next one, because just around the corner could be another major job."

Yet despite all the rescues, the coastguards feel they are being treated as the Cinderella rescue service and unions have been threatening strike action for the first time.

Mr Cattrell said: "There is a lack of awareness and recognition about the professional and technical side of the job.

"My pay is half of what my counterparts earn in Ireland and there are people here who are on just above the minimum wage.

"It's a big job and we want to be recognised for it."

Antarctic cruise ship evacuated
23 Nov 07 |  Americas
'Smuggled' people's boat traced
29 Aug 07 |  Cornwall
Couple rescued in Atlantic drama
19 Feb 06 |  Cornwall
Coastguard raises pirate alarm
14 Jan 02 |  England
Six dead after trawler sinks
06 Mar 01 |  Scotland

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