Department for Transport

The role of HM Coastguard

The UK government assumes responsibility for civilian maritime Search and Rescue, and delegate this responsibility to Her Majesty’s Coastguard – part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Her Majesty’s Coastguard coordinate maritime search and rescue within the UK Search and Rescue region, and have a variety of resources they can task to emergency situations – either people in distress at sea, or emergencies on the coast or shoreline. HM Coastguard also has their own volunteer service, the Coastguard Rescue Service, who are teams of volunteers who can respond to land based emergencies such as cliff and mud rescues or searches for missing people.

17 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCCs) form a network of command and control centres for responding to reports of maritime and coastal distress. Watch keeping staff in these centres provide a 24 hour service to mariners and coastal users by receiving incoming distress calls and sending resources to their rescue. These calls could come in via the monitoring of emergency radio frequencies, or by 999 calls, as the Coastguard are a recognised 999 emergency service.

Area of operations

The UK Search and Rescue region covers some 1.25 million square nautical miles of sea and over 10.5 thousand nautical miles of coastline.  

The image below illustrates the Search and Rescue region.  

UK Maritime Search and Rescue Region

Our assets

HM Coastguard can call upon a wide variety of resources – known as declared assets – when coordinating Search and Rescue.

Search and Rescue facilities we can call on includes:

  • Our own Coastguard Rescue Teams who form a volunteer service of 3500 members in 362 teams strategically placed around the coast.
  • Search and Rescue helicopters under contract to the MCA.
  • Lifeboats operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), along with other nominated inshore rescue services.
  • Search and Rescue helicopters operated by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force.
  • Chemical incident response for vessels at sea
  • Nominated beach lifeguard units
  • Police, Fire and Ambulance Services
  • Mountain and Cave Rescue Teams


The MCA currently operates four Search and Rescue bases - at Stornoway, Shetland, Portland and Lee-on-the-Solent.  The Shetland and Stornoway bases operate Sikorsky S92 helicopters, and the Lee-on-the-Solent and Portland bases operate AgustaWestland AW139s. The Portland helicopter operates for 12 hours only.

You can also find out about the Search and Rescue - Harmonisation (SAR-H) project here.

Sikorsky S92 helicopter

Coastguard Rescue Teams

The Coastguard Rescue Service is a network of volunteer teams around the coast who are equipped to deal with incidents and rescues appropriate to the local area. As a result of this, we have teams that specialise in mud, cliff and swift water rescue according to the local terrain, as well as all being trained in search capabilities.

These teams will be sent to rescues by their local Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, and can respond to a variety of emergency situations.

If you are interested in volunteering for the Coastguard Rescue Service you can find more information here.

Coastguard Rescue Officer

History of the Coastguard

In 1809 the Preventative Water Guard was established and can be regarded as the immediate ancestor of HM Coastguard. Its primary objective was to prevent smuggling, but it was also responsible for giving assistance to shipwrecks.

Each Water Guard station was issued with Manby’s Mortar, which was invented by Captain George William Manby. The mortar fired a shot with a line attached from the shore to the wrecked ship and was used for many years.

In 1821 a committee of enquiry recommended that responsibility for the Preventative Water Guard be transferred to the Board of Customs. The Treasury agreed, and in a Minute dated 15 January 1822, directed that the preventative services, which consisted of the Preventative Water Guard, cruisers, and Riding Officers should be placed under the authority of the Board of Customs and in future should be named the Coast Guard.

In 1829 the first Coast Guard instructions were published and dealt with discipline and directions for carrying out preventative duties. They also stipulated that when a wreck took place, the Coast Guard was responsible for taking all possible action to save lives, to take charge of the vessel and to protect property.

Efficiency drives in the 1990s made Her Majesty's Coastguard a government executive agency, and then in 1998 the Marine Safety Agency and the Coastguard Agency were joined to become the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

HRH The Prince of Wales is an honorary Commodore of HM Coastguard.


Requests for information regarding Coastguards should be put to the National Archives at Kew.  They can be contacted at:

Things to consider when searching for information on service with HM Coastguard

The Coastguard Service was officially established in 1822 to prevent smuggling, when the Revenue Cruisers, Riding Officers and Preventative Water Guard merged. Prior to this date employment in any of these activities was covered by the Customs so historical records will be held under those appropriate sections within the Public Record Office.

The Board of Customs continued to be in overall charge of the Coastguard until 1856 when the Admiralty Board took over. The Admiralty remained in overall charge of HM Coastguard until 1923 when the responsibility passed to the Board Trade. Since 1923 the Coastguard service has been successively administered by the following:

Board of Trade 1923 - 1939
Ministry of Shipping 1939 - 1940
Admiralty 1940 - 1945
Ministry of (War) Transport 1945 - 1964
Department of Trade 1964 - 1983
Department of Transport 1983 - 1997
Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR)/ Department for Transport Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) 1997 - 2001
Department for Transport 2002 - to date

During its History HM Coastguard has been administered by a number of different Departments as the table above illustrates, unfortunately this means that records are scattered throughout the Public Record Office. There is also no single reference index for Coastguards, but careful researching can bring up significant details.