Fifty-six years and counting: HM Coastguard's longest serving officer

When HM Coastguard’s longest serving volunteer signed up in 1965, humans had yet to visit the moon.

Television was still in black and white. There was no speed limit on motorways, of which there were very few anyway.

There was no internet. No personal computers. No mobile phones.

It was a very different world.

But it was the world in which Keith Dare-Williams first donned his HM Coastguard blue overalls and took up his post overlooking Plymouth Sound.

He has remained in that role for 56 years, as time and tide moved around him.

Keith poses with his service medals alongside the current, electric response vehicle
in the station he has called 'home' for 56-years

The 72-year-old Coastguard Rescue Officer (CRO) was awarded an MBE in 1996 for Services to Safety at Sea as he surpassed the 30-year service mark and has gone on to offer 26 more years. Keith estimates he and the Plymouth team have rescued hundreds of people in his time.

He spent 37 years as Station Officer before making the tough decision to step down, to allow some of the younger volunteers the opportunity to take on the responsibility of the top voluntary role among the team.

He is full of charming tales from the coastguard days of yore, a link to a past service that no longer exists, from the ad-hoc manner in which he was recruited to how they carried out this work.

"I didn't believe it, I thought one of my colleagues was playing a joke," Keith said as he recalled the day he received the letter informing him of his MBE

The volunteer has been protecting Plymouth’s shores since March 1965 — having been called in to action at just 15 years old.

The tale goes that he was trudging up the steep hill on his way home from a morning of pot fishing in Plymouth Harbour, when he came upon the coastguard team going in the other direction — and with one member too few.

The young lad from the village of Hooe, the base of the Plymouth Station, was told to ‘jump in’ to the cart, pulled by a horse.

“It was one of those things that was meant to be,” Keith recalls.

Older memories and photos of the team. The Victoria pub was often the place the team went to socialise, as well as the place they would go after a big incident

“They were a man down and needed the extra hand as they were getting ready to use the Breeches Buoy, so they told me to get in and go with them.

“They knew who I was as I’m from the same village, it’s a very small place, so they knew I wasn’t old enough, but they took me along anyway.”

He said that when the team returned to the station and decided Keith had passed his ‘trial’, they made it official, despite being three years too young to join the service.

He said: “The commander asked what my date of birth was and one of the older guys stepped forward and spoke for me, ‘he’s 18’ he said. No one questioned it. Well, my parents did a little.

“When I got home and said I had just joined the coastguard, my dad just said, ‘but you can’t’ and I said, ‘but I have’ and that was that.”

Keith and the team during a training exercise 

A Breeches Buoy, he explained, for more than a century was one of the few tools available to reach stricken ships battered on the rocks by monstrous seas. Essentially a zip wire, the Breeches Buoy was deployed by means of a rocket or mortar. The art was to aim it so as not to hit the crew members you were trying to save.

“Everything was different then though,” Keith added. “They might seem bad now but, at the time, it was a very efficient method of getting people off boats. And it worked.

“They were fun too. We got up to a lot of mischief that health and safety would (rightly) baulk at these days.

“But one thing that has remained the same throughout my time with the coastguard is the commitment to saving lives. When it mattered, everyone is and always has been professional and committed.

“I think, when I joined initially, I had no idea of how rewarding it would be and the pride I would feel. It built up over the years, but I do feel a tremendous sense of achievement.”

The station has been in Hooe since the 'mid-19th century', according to Keith. This list of rescues covers the period 1872 to 1957

Despite the pride, Keith said that the incidents that really ‘stick’ in the memory are the ones without a successful outcome.

“It is the sad outcomes that really stick with you,” he said. “But I do remember good outcomes as well. For example, there was a young child in the 1970s that went missing and we found him lost in the bracken. He was a lovely lad, and it was special to be the ones to find him.

“I have been lucky by the teams around me as well over the years. As a young upstart, there were times I did feel a little out of it, they were big, much older guys. But I slowly became one of them and we were very close.

“All the teams across the years have been close, it’s important, as we talk and we debrief when we’ve dealt with a particularly difficult incident.

“Yes, it does have a massive impact on your life, but it’s been my life since I was 15. I can’t imagine life without it. As long as I remain fit, I hope to remain a coastguard rescue officer.”

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