Gary Court was in bed and fast asleep when his pager bleeped one Sunday night last month.
The 53-year-old father-of-three is a volunteer coastguard, the land-based equivalent of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
He got up and dressed in his protective clothing, just as he has done up to 80 times a year — in rain, snow and fog — for more than three decades.
Gary Court resigned after 32 years’ service. Gary, who runs his own painting and decorating business, has helped to rescue countless people and animals
A teenage boy had gone missing on the dunes around Croyde Beach in North Devon.
He had been drinking with his friends, who couldn’t find him in the dark and were panicking.
Motivated by a desire to protect his local community, Gary, who runs his own painting and decorating business, has helped to rescue countless people and animals (including, memorably, a baby loggerhead turtle swept off course from the Caribbean).
He’s been called out in the middle of family dinners, on Christmas Day and during friends’ birthday celebrations. He has never not responded to a call.
Sacked: Ian Pedrick, left, and Richard Clarkson, right, were subsequently fired by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency because they had breached the coastguard code of conduct by using a Land Rover and specialist equipment that was not in their remit
Gary’s first emergency, aged 16, was to deal with a suicide at Baggy Point — a local cliff with a 200ft drop.
‘A man had landed on his head on the rocks and was in a dreadful state and we had to carry the body down half a mile on the stretcher,’ he says. ‘It was traumatic. I really felt for his family so, if anything, it made me keener to help.’
One day, Gary might be winched down in thick fog from a helicopter to rescue a stranded walker. The next, it might be a dog to save.
One Christmas he went to the aid of a rather shamefaced James Cracknell, who loves the area of Devon so much the double Olympic gold medallist called his son Croyde. Cracknell had become stranded in his boat when the tide turned. ‘He was really embarrassed!’
And in the wake of the terrible floods in nearby Braunton, in 2012, Gary was personally thanked by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall for his help.
But let’s return to that night in June. Knowing the dunes inside out, Gary, along with a colleague and a paramedic who arrived by car, quickly found the lost boy.
He was unconscious and very cold, so they stretchered him out, covered him in blankets and called an ambulance.
The Croyde Beach station is also worryingly depleted. ‘We should be a team of 12. Now we’re down to eight and one is on sick, one may not return and two are on holiday for the summer,’ says Gary. A stock photo is pictured above [File photo]
But it was delayed. They waited 90 minutes in the rain, and were then told the ambulance was further delayed.
With the boy suffering from suspected hypothermia, Gary knew from his 32 years of experience that they had to get him to hospital fast.
So after securing the go-ahead from the paramedic’s superiors and consent from the boy’s parents by phone — he rushed home, cleared out his own van, drove back, put the coastguard stretcher with unconscious boy into the back and drove in convoy to hospital.
There, the teenager was admitted, treated and made a full recovery. And about 3.30am, Gary crawled back into bed next to his wife Elaine — tired but fulfilled.
‘We thought we’d all done well — another one accomplished,’ he says. ‘It felt good, we were happy.’ Sadly, the feeling did not last long.
By 10am the next day, his section manager rang to say he was reporting Gary to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the Government body based in Southampton responsible for all coastguards.
Its bosses were cross that Gary had used coastguard owned-equipment — the stretcher — in his personal vehicle without prior approval from senior officers.
‘I was told it would have been better if I’d just put him on a mattress in the back of my van,’ he says. ‘Though not as good for the lad, maybe.’
Anyway, Gary duly apologised.
They waited 90 minutes in the rain, and were then told the ambulance was further delayed. With the boy suffering from suspected hypothermia, Gary knew from his 32 years of experience that they had to get him to hospital fast
‘I realised I hadn’t done it by the letter, but as far as I was concerned we sorted that situation in the best possible way we could.’ But it made no difference. He was reprimanded, the MCA recommended he underwent further training.
No wonder Gary lost faith and heart in his bosses. ‘I told them: ‘I think it’s time I gave up — because using common sense is obviously not right any more.’ ‘
Then, one of his colleagues — Becky Slade, who has 18 years’ experience as a coastguard and is ‘a wonder with casualties’ — resigned in support, leaving their coastguard station in Croyde woefully understaffed.
There followed complete silence from the MCA, whose bosses didn’t change their minds. They certainly didn’t thank Gary for his 32 years of heroic public service and his sleepless nights — or the stress of being constantly on call.
(Incidentally, neither the boy who Gary rescued nor his family have ever thanked him.)
Sadly, this is not a one-off story. And it is reminiscent of a comparable bureaucracy row that engulfed another coastline public service, the RNLI.
Last summer, lifeboatmen were sacked amid talk of ‘safeguarding’ issues after a crew had exchanged jokey Christmas gifts, including a mug with a picture of a naked woman on it and another of the lifeboatmen’s faces superimposed onto the model’s head.
Meanwhile, a separate controversial incident three days before the Croyde Beach drama led to two coastguards being sacked after they rescued a car that had rolled towards a cliff edge after the hand-brake had been dislodged at Bolberry Down near Salcombe on the South Coast.
As there was no danger to life, the fire brigade wouldn’t get involved so Ian Pedrick, 59, and Richard Clarkson, 44 — two members of Hope Cove station in south Devon with 60 years’ experience between them — stepped in.
After removing their coastguard uniforms and seeking permission from the coastguard officer in charge to pull the car out with a tractor or similar, they towed the vehicle using Richard’s Land Rover.
‘It took two minutes — all it needed was a little tug up a couple of feet and he was able to drive off,’ says Ian, who works full time running both his beef farm and a local hotel. Those two minutes cost them their future as coastguards.
Their offence? It’s so silly it’s almost funny. They didn’t return the coastguard vehicle to the station before winching the car with their own vehicle.
They were subsequently fired by the MCA because they had breached the coastguard code of conduct by using a Land Rover and specialist equipment that was not in their remit.
The car’s owner told the BBC he was ‘appalled the two men had been sacked’ and added that their dismissal was an over-reaction.
Ian says: ‘We were told: ‘If you’d taken the coastguard vehicle back to the station first, none of this would have happened.’ It’s so pedantic.’
Richard, a local blacksmith and metal worker, added that they acted as they did because they were busy men and felt they needed to effect the rescue as quickly as possible.
But that didn’t cut any mustard with the MCA, for whom the old adage — ‘Rules are made for the guidance of the wise and the absolute adherence of fools’ — could have been written.
What a heartless and perfunctory way to treat volunteers — who total about 3,500, mostly come from coastal communities and want to put something back. They drop everything at a moment’s notice to keep people safe.
And while they can claim expenses equivalent to the national minimum wage for call-outs, almost all their training and patrolling is unpaid.
‘No one would do it for the money,’ says Ian, a coastguard for 42 years following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. ‘And we’re not in it for the glory. We just want to be someone to call if you’re in trouble.’
Gary was inspired as a boy by the coastguards who used to drink in his father’s pub and told tales of triumph and tragedy. Now he and his comrades have their own war stories of derring-do.
There are tales of clearing beaches of World War II bombs after huge storms, saving puppies, returning the bodies of lost dogs who sadly didn’t make it to distraught families, and being trapped under the rescue boat in heavy swells, fearing for their own lives. Ian’s first call-out took place on his 18th birthday.
‘A young man was sliding down a grassy bank, inches from the cliff edge,’ he says.
Without their experience, the team couldn’t function and the station is now closed until at least Christmas while they undergo training. This means the village and its environs are now served by other teams
‘He was absolutely terrified, so I went down on a rope and rescued him. It was scary, but it also felt good.’ Not long after, a crazed father hurled his son and daughter, aged three and four, over Bolt Tail, a 200ft-high headland.
‘I was winched down to rescue the girl who was in the sea being smashed against the rocks. But sadly her brother perished . . .’ Ian’s voice goes quiet.
Meanwhile, as they simply get on with their duties, the MCA, they say, has demanded more paperwork, more form-filling, seemingly endless unpaid training and a slavish obsession with box-ticking.
‘It’s absolutely mad. Why would anyone volunteer now?’ says Ian. ‘Are they trying to close stations?’
Sadly, that is exactly what has happened in Hope Cove. Without their experience, the team couldn’t function and the station is now closed until at least Christmas while they undergo training.
This means the village and its environs are now served by other teams. According to Ian, response times are much slower in a world where seconds can make the difference between saving lives — and failing to save them.
‘It increases the response by 40 minutes to an hour, when we can usually get there in between 10 and 20 minutes,’ he says.
‘So if you’re hanging off the cliff, or cut off by the tide, you’re going to drown.’
The Croyde Beach station is also worryingly depleted. ‘We should be a team of 12. Now we’re down to eight and one is on sick, one may not return and two are on holiday for the summer,’ says Gary.
‘So we’re kicking up a fuss because we don’t want someone to die before people realise what is happening.’
Despite everything, Ian and Richard have appealed the MCA’s decision. Gary says that the coastguard’s life is a central part of his existence, adding: ‘It has caused me stress and has taken up a huge amount of my time — but the station is like a second home and I just love it.’
Ian, meanwhile, can’t picture the future without volunteering.
‘It leaves a huge hole in my life,’ he says. ‘Just not carrying my pager seems strange.’
And so all three agree that, if someone from the MCA would apologise or acknowledge their contribution over the decades, they’d be back like a shot, ready to resume their unsung heroics.
For its part, the MCA says: ‘Our first priority will always be the safety of our Coastguard Rescue Officers and the general public.
‘We strive to ensure that our operating procedures, search and rescue techniques and responses are not only consistent but are continually reviewed as part of our post-mission review process.’
Following the incident involving Gary and his colleague at Croyde Bay, the agency carried out an ‘incident review and identified a training need. Refresher training was offered to two Coastguard Rescue Officers.’
As for the second incident, the MCA said two officers attempted to carry out ‘an unsafe recovery using an untested rope tied around a bumper of a privately owned vehicle’.
This, it added, ‘breached our safe systems of work and placed the officers at unnecessary risk’.
Meanwhile, as families head to our beaches this summer, let’s hope the brave volunteer coastguards quietly saving lives all around the country, week-in, week-out, can do their jobs effectively — and that common sense prevails.