999 is the UK emergency number. If we require the immediate assistance of police, fire or ambulance our trembling finger jabs that number. It is also the number to be called if help is needed from HM Coastguard, Mountain or Cave Rescue and also for Lowland Search and Rescue.
The Berkshire Lowland Search and Rescue team can sometimes be found training in one of our local woods. On one occasion, when we were returning from a walk, Bertie, our late very placid and gentlemanly Labrador suddenly stopped, stood stock still and barked ferociously at a bush several yards away. Sure enough, a volunteer was hiding in it, waiting to be ‘rescued’.
We count ourselves extremely fortunate that we have had little need to call the emergency services. Once we had to call the local fire brigade when our daughter’s car caught fire.
Crowthorne is an on-call (retained) fire service that has always been crewed by local people. A retained firefighter is a trained professional who may have a full-time job without the fire service but responds to emergency calls in the area.
On the occasion of the car fire, Barry had just got home from the ‘village’, which is more of a small town, actually, where he had been chatting to one of the retained firemen in a local shop. The car caught fire, though I can’t remember how or why, and 999 was called. Among the fire crew who attended was the chap Barry had been talking to a few minutes before. It was quite funny, really, when we looked back on it.
Whenever Barry set off on a sailing trip he always made sure I knew where he was going and what times he would call me, as he always liked to contact me daily. It was a safety strategy, as he had no desire to sail off the edge of the world! He said, ‘If you don’t hear from me by . . . (whatever time it was) . . . call the Coastguard.’ This was in the days before mobile ‘phones and GPS when courses were plotted on charts.
I didn’t think any more of it until the day I didn’t hear from him. Feeling a little apprehensive, I called 999 and a rather bored-sounding operator said, ‘Which service do you require?’ When I said, ‘Coastguard’ I could almost hear her sit up straight as her voice changed. We don’t live anywhere near the coast so I suppose it was surprising.
I explained the safety plan to the Coastguard and where Barry had been heading. He then asked me, ‘What colour is the yacht’s deck?’ I told him it was white. Most boats have white decks so I couldn’t see how that could help, but he was the expert and I was now rather worried. He said he’d call me back with any news. A couple of hours later he called to say, ‘We’ve found your wandering boy.’ I was mightily relieved.
It turned out that the boat was outside St-Vaast-La-Hougue, in Normandy, north-western France, unable to get into the port because it was low tide and the lock gates were closed.
Images of St-Vaast-La-Hougue courtesy of Wikimedia Commons