30th October 2017. In this age of satellite tracking and emergency beacons, technology more familiar from Second World War films about Atlantic convoys has helped save a yacht in peril off the coast of Cornwall. A quick-thinking member of the National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) team at Bass Point, on the far tip of the Lizard peninsula, used Morse code and a flashing Aldis lamp to signal to a yacht that was in danger of grounding on the treacherous Dales – rocks that are submerged at high tide and which present a real hazard to marine traffic.
When watchkeeper Simon Sugrue observed a yacht heading on a collision course with the underwater reef, seemingly unaware of the danger ahead, he was forced to take immediate action. As the vessel was not carrying an Automatic Identification System beacon, Mr Sugrue was unable to contact the yacht’s skipper using conventional VHF radio, so he took the only other course of action available in the circumstances and flashed the letter U in Morse code using the station’s old but highly-effective Aldis lamp. ‘U’ is the international maritime warning code for “you are standing into danger”. Having come to within ten boat lengths of the rocks, the yacht was then observed to alter course southwards shortly afterwards and continued safely on its passage to Falmouth.
NCI Bass Point station manager Peter Clements said: “To the best of my knowledge we are one of only a few NCI stations in the country to possess an Aldis lamp. The advent of modern technology means that nowadays you are more likely to see an Aldis lamp flashing morse code messages between ships in a Second World War film about the Atlantic convoys. But in the situation in which our Watchkeeper found himself, it proved to be the right tool for the job and his quick thinking prevented a serious incident.”
Mr Sugrue, a former master mariner, is no stranger to the Aldis lamp, having started his seagoing career in 1950 when they were still in regular service. He said: “It was an interesting minute or so on watch, with the Aldis lamp in my right hand and the phone jammed in my ear with an open line to the coastguard, who wanted a running commentary on the unfolding situation.”
Bass Point Coastwatch Station was the country's first NCI station and opened on 18th December, 1994. The opening was the direct result of the tragic loss of a local Cadgwith fishing boat and her two-man crew, which happened in the sea area overlooked by the derelict Bass Point Coastguard Station that had been closed two years earlier.
The photograph shows Mr Sugrue in action with the Aldis lamp.(Image: Bass Point NCI)