My thoughts were drawn back to an incident in a past summer.

My wife and I were sailing our Dufour 36 Classic in Weymouth Bay on a gentle, sunny morning, when the radio suddenly burst into life.

A fishing boat was making a “Pan Pan” call and was quickly answered by Portland Coastguard. The Fisherman Skipper gave his position and reported that he had picked up three men from a liferaft. They were the crew of a fishing boat which had foundered in Lyme Bay during the previous night. The men had spent the night in an open rubber raft and were suffering from exposure and hypothermia. The Coastguard responded with the usual time-consuming but essential questions and then quickly announced that they were launching the Coastguard helicopter based at Portland.

A new voice burst into the channel 16 frequency. “This is HMS Bulwark. I am five minutes away from the position given, I have a fully staffed and equipped hospital onboard and I can have the survivors onboard within a few minutes. I have a helicopter available.”

Incredibly, the Portland Coastguard operator vacillated for a few moments and then announced that they would be sending the Coastguard helicopter from Portland to the middle of Lyme Bay to collect the three survivors and bring them back to Dorset County Hospital. At best this would entail a fifteen minute outbound trip and a bit more getting back.

HMS Bulwark repeated their offer to take the survivors into their care at least twice, but their offers were firmly rejected. After about ten minutes the Coastguard helicopter got airborne and headed out into the bay. We thought they would quickly pick up the survivors by winch transfer but, oh no, they had to lower their aircrewman first, to carry out a medical assessment while the helicopter flew round the casualty in circles, probably drowning out conversation attempts in the fishing boat below. Eventually the men were picked up and taken to the County Hospital. While all of this was going on the huge naval assault ship, with its comprehensive onboard hospital stood by – frustrated.

There is a huge local campaign to retain the services of the Coastguard helicopter and I have often wondered, since I listened to this incident, whether this was another case of putting lives at greater risk, merely to collar another headline grabbing incident for the Coastguard helicopter.

In due course, a headline appeared in the Dorset Echo congratulating the Coastguard helicopter on another successful rescue.

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