New Year Message from the MVS Chairman
Apologies for a rather delayed New Year message.
As I know will be the case for most of you, I have been juggling the demands of family, work and the MVS – with only partial success.
We are all volunteers.
That has obvious drawbacks but it is also our greatest strength.
Thanks go to all members, in all Units, who played their part in 2019
I hope you have all had a well-earned break over the Festive Season, though I know some of you will have been on standby on Christmas Day to provide emergency transport for important government services.
Special thanks go to those at Portsmouth Unit who were prepared to sacrifice that special family day if needed.
They weren’t called out but the fact that the MVS is part of official emergency plans doesn’t go unnoticed.
As I mentioned in my introduction to the Christmas Newsletter, last year was in general a very successful one for the MVS.
A massive amount of good work was achieved by Units around the country and several new Units had either been established or were close to being formally set up by the end of the year.
Our AGM and afternoon conference in Portsmouth in November were also successes.
The conference was however rather shorter than planned, due to an adjournment to witness the arrival of HMS Prince of Wales in Portsmouth.
There was time to consider two aspects of Resilience.
Lt. Col. Philip Mileham gave an excellent presentation on the military’s role in assisting civilian authorities in emergencies.
Then RVO Central England Andrew Smith explained the DEFRA system for qualifying to assist in flood response.
This presentation quite rightly aroused a lot of interest among the members present and I will come back to this subject.
The main item of the afternoon should have been a wide-ranging open forum on the future of our charity.
As it turned it out there wasn’t the time to have any more than a brief question and answer session.
I had intended to kick off the forum by outlining my views of where we are as an organisation and the opportunities for the future.
So, I am going to do that now.
I have heard it said that the MVS has lost its way.
I think that there was some truth in that a few years ago.
It is certainly the case that the MVS has not developed on the lines that the original founders hoped and expected when they set up our charity in 1994 on the disbandment of the RNXS.
Initially we adopted a similar approach to that of the RNXS, with the focus on operating vessels capable of undertaking coastal voyages.
The hope was that the skills learnt in the RNXS could be carried on and that the authorities would recognise their value and once again make use of them.
That was not an unrealistic assumption at the time.
In fact, the MVS very nearly took on a key role in a proposed official coastal patrol service in 2003.
It was so close to fruition that the then Customs and Excise Board transferred 12 of their launches and RIBs to us for the purpose, and we still have several of them in operation now.
That project fell at the last administrative hurdle and since then we have had to become a quite different charity.
It is important to emphasise both that we are indeed a charity and that the environment in which charities work has evolved.
Nowadays we are under close scrutiny from the Charity Commission and receive a constant stream of advice and guidance from them.
As with all charities, we must look closely at the way we are delivering our objectives and pay attention to how we address social inclusion and diversity and a number of other issues.
We have more work to do there.
The regulatory environment for operating small vessels has also changed massively and we have had to adapt to that too.
That is one important reason why we now mainly operate small craft on inland waters and estuaries, with only a very small number of craft Maritime and Coastguard Agency-coded to go to sea.
Another is that operating vessels of up to fleet tender size, as was typically undertaken by the RNXS, is very expensive and has proved to be beyond our means.
A third reason why we now focus on smaller craft is that each Unit has its own boat, or boats.
Looking after Unit boats takes time and few members find they can also go on trips on even the one vessel that is available to take members on coastal training trips.
Please do try to sail on the National Training Vessel East Sussex 1 if you can – all members are welcome to take up the many berths that are available during the year.
So where are we now?
We have just under 30 Units around the UK, with more in the South than the North (something we are working on), and over 50 craft ranging from our 17 metre sea-going national training vessel through about half a dozen smaller launches to a large fleet of RIBs and inflatables.
Do we have a clear purpose?
I believe we do.
We use our maritime skills to serve the community.
We have evolved into an organisation that finds local niches and each Unit is unique.
However, there are four key ways that we serve the community. We recruit and train our members in maritime skills.
We provide safety patrols for various authorities.
We run sea experience and training programmes for youth and community groups and we prepare for and take part in Resilience exercises and operations.
All of these activities can be said to come under the broad heading of ‘community engagement’.
Our Units must be seen as part of the local community and they have to tailor their activities to local needs if they are to thrive.
We are of course an organisation that recruits members to train in maritime skills.
That in itself is of benefit to the community in that it provides a worthwhile activity for a wide range of people including those who are retired or not in work and instils a sense of purpose and comradeship.
We also provide relevant skills and safety awareness for those who would like to become more involved in boating and perhaps get their own boat.
One specific group who can benefit from taking part in MVS activities are ex-service personnel and we are actively exploring this with Blesma, The Limbless Veterans.
In some cases, too we have been a stepping stone to careers at sea for younger members. All of this is of significant value.
However, if training our own people was all we did, we could be seen as being just a boating club.
To be a Volunteer Service we need to contribute to the wider society in meaningful ways.
Units with suitable craft can provide sea/afloat experience to youth and other groups.
At a time when there has been a marked decline in public awareness of all things maritime this is in itself of significant public benefit.
The MVS can, in many cases, also provide actual training to youth groups, such as Sea Cadets and Scouts, both afloat and ashore.
For many years several MVS Units have carried out safety patrols for port and other authorities.
Poole Unit has the most experience in this regard.
We are now expanding this aspect of our work.
In the past year we have started regular patrols for the Littlehampton Harbour Master and currently are in advanced negotiations with three major ports.
We are now approaching this opportunity in a systematic way and framing our patrolling proposals with reference to the Marine Port Safety Code. Safety patrolling offers the exciting prospect of Units the around country carrying out a worthwhile service which the MVS is uniquely qualified and well equipped to provide.
Lastly, but by no means least, we come to Resilience which is the current term for official emergency response planning.
The MVS has been involved in supporting the authorities on several occasions.
Our biggest involvement was in the aftermath of the grounding of the container ship MSC Napoli.
More recently some of our Units have been involved in supporting flood response operations.
For several years Portsmouth Unit has been on stand-by every Christmas to transport senior Fire and Rescue and Prison Service officials to the Isle of Wight when no ferries were running.
All of our maritime and communication skills, and our considerable small craft fleet, are of value to Resilience but recently Rushden Unit has been specialising in providing flood response that uses the DEFRA training modules and qualifications.
This means that we can provide volunteers who are trained to a standard that will be immediately recognised by the authorities.
Whether to train to DEFRA standards will remain a matter for individual Units but my view is that the more Units have at least the basic DEFRA qualifications the better.
Experience so far shows that it is possible to get grants to acquire the specialist equipment needed.
Are there challenges ahead? Yes.
Is it always going to be easy? No.
Will there be setbacks? Yes.
Of course, we have hurdles to overcome, including funding, but I am not going to dwell on them now. The important thing is that we have a plan.
What we offer will be at least slightly different in each location where we operate but the broad approaches outlined here are working well right now and can provide the basis for a bright future for the MVS.