Coastguard officer Carl Taylor has gone from watching the sea to watching the road, as he hangs up his uniform after 35 years with HM Coastguard.
A long career which started as a volunteer and ended as a team leader in a state-of-the-art maritime rescue co-ordination centre has now given way to a new role driving buses for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
Official recognition of Carl’s sterling service to saving lives was made by assistant chief coastguard Pat O’Callaghan at Bragar’s Grinneabhat Centre on Tuesday evening (21 March) where he received the good wishes and thanks of his service colleagues.
Carl joined HM Coastguard as a volunteer auxiliary coastguard in the late 1980s, while he was posted to Stornoway with the RAF.
At that time the coastguard watch room was upstairs from the Clydesdale Bank on South Beach, and Carl did his first shifts there, taking six-hour watches alongside full-time coastguard officers.
Carl said: “While I was serving with the RAF I saw an advert for auxiliary coastguards which sounded interesting, so I signed up and started volunteering at South Beach Street.
“At that time the desks were lit by little lamps, but you could always tell when there was an incident because all the strip lights were switched on and the place lit up.
“On my first shift I took part in a rescue and I immediately knew this was the job for me. A factory fishing ship had run aground in the Little Minch and Stornoway RNLI lifeboat was launched.
“I was so impressed with the way the rescue all came together, how everyone knew their part and just worked together to achieve the rescue.”
That incident had a funny side, too, since the Eastern European crew had been on a spree in Stornoway Woolworths the day before. They didn’t want to leave their purchases behind, so they tried to board the lifeboat carrying all their shopping – including a lawnmower.
Carl said: “During that incident I knew that this was the job I wanted, but at that time the job required a minimum of six years’ experience at sea or in search and rescue, which I didn’t have.”
But after leaving the island with his new wife Marina in 1990, Carl carried on volunteering with the coastguard in Bridlington and, in August 1995, was able to return to Stornoway with their young family and take up a full-time coastguard post.
At first a watch officer with B watch, in 2004 he became Western Isles coastal sector manager, looking after nine coastguard rescue teams. During that time he became a senior coastal operations officer or ‘SCOO” and then, in 2019, returned to the ops room as a team leader until his retirement late last year.
Looking back on an eventful 35 years, Carl said: “There have been numerous incidents over the years, some tragic and some with really good outcomes.
“On the day that I passed my initial qualifying exams I got back to the station and found that a supertanker was adrift 40 miles north-west of the Butt of Lewis.
“The tanker had been hit by a freak wave which knocked its rudder out. The coastguard tug was tasked to the incident, but when she rounded the Butt, she met 15-metre seas and was only able to make one knot into it – definitely a wild day.”
Other notable incidents have included the grounding of the oil rig Transocean Winner at Dalmore, the tragedy of an RAF Shackleton plane crashing into Maodal at Northton, Harris in 1990 with the loss of 10 crew, and the wreck of the fishing vessel Spinningdale off St Kilda in 2008.
But Carl also values the times when small operations made a big difference to at least one individual, such as a call close to home in Point during a storm in 2014.
He recalls: “We were called to a lady’s house in Garrabost because her window had blown out, the electricity was off and she wasn’t safe in her home.
“Four of us who live locally were able to get up to the window, roof tiles flying all around us, and we managed to rig a piece of wood, keep the gale out and make the house safe again.”
That’s a big part of what stays in Carl’s mind about his long career. He said: “It’s the teamwork, helping other people, the sense of achievement when we know a rescue has gone well.
“And it’s seeing how awe-inspiring people are, turning out and leaving their own families, sometimes in awful conditions, to help others.
“The phone goes and you turn out to do it, but afterwards you can think ‘Yeah, we did alright there. We helped someone out and did what we’re here to do.’”
Carl will be keeping his wheels firmly on the ground from now on, either on the motorbike which he rides for fun, or in the bus which he now drives for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.
You’ll spot him on various routes around Point, Tolsta, town and occasional school runs further afield.
Carl is pictured with assistant chief coastguard Pat O’Callaghan, receiving his send-off from colleagues at Grinneabhat on Tuesday evening.