Coastguard bows out after countless rescues and 14,000 days on call

Jerry Woodley, Sheringham Coastguard station officer, who is retiring after almost 40 years. Picture

Jerry Woodley, Sheringham Coastguard station officer, who is retiring after almost 40 years. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY

Not many people can claim to have saved a life, but Jerry Woodley has played a role in saving many. 

Over the past four decades as a Coastguard officer Mr Woodley has been on-call for around 14,000 days, and has attend every kind of coastal incident you can think of.

Jerry Woodley, Sheringham Coastguard station officer, who is retiring after almost 40 years. Picture

Jerry Woodley, Sheringham Coastguard station officer, who is retiring after almost 40 years. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY

There have been plane and helicopter crashes, emergencies on crab boats, yachts and inflatables, people stuck on cliffs, out to sea, under rocks and in the marshes.

But today (December 31) is the West Runton man's final shift in his remarkable stretch at the Sheringham Coastguard.  

"When you're out on the marsh in the middle of the night in winter you might ask 'why am I doing this?'" Mr Woodley said.

"But you've got to think the person you're looking for is someone's loved one - everyone belongs to somebody.

HM Coastguard team rescuing a dog that fell from the cliff edge at Happy Valley, Cromer. Rescuer Jer

Jerry Woodley being winched back up the cliff at Happy Valley in Cromer with Chloe the dog, in a 2014 rescue. - Credit: ANTONY KELLY

"It will be strange to finish. We've had some tragedies but there have been some good times and we've had some laughs. I hope the people of Cromer and Sheringham think that I've done my bit."

Most Read

Mr Woodley, who has been station officer at Sheringham for about 10 years, is the most experienced cliff rescue technician in north Norfolk. He has the record for the 'oldest' rescue - of an 84-year-old - as well as the 'youngest', of a two-year-old. 

Sheringham Coastguard station officer Stuart Facey with his team (from left) Peter Smith, Chris O'Re

Flashback to 2011, with then Sheringham Coastguard station officer Stuart Facey, far left, with his team Peter Smith, Chris O'Regan, Jerry Woodley and Shaun Bryenton. - Credit: Karen Bethell

He said: "I've also got a chief coastguard's commendation, for a cliff rescue I carried out in a snow storm at Mundesley about 20 years ago. A chap had fallen over in the snow and damaged his back, but we got him off.

"And I don't think there's a breed of dog I haven't recovered from a cliff - they're mostly spaniels but the most recent one - about three weeks ago off Sheringham golf course - was a Labrador puppy."

Mr Woodley said the bigger incidents "stuck in your mind" and among the most tragic was the deaths of four-year-old Tom Loughlin and his sister Jodi, six, in 1996.

Days after going missing from Holme beach, their bodies were found washed up in the Sheringham area.

"My sons were then three and five, and that really hit home," he said.

Jerry Woodley with the Coastguard rescue vehicle in 1984. Picture: courtesy of Jerry Woodley

Jerry Woodley with the Coastguard rescue vehicle in 1984. Picture: courtesy of Jerry Woodley - Credit: Courtesy of Jerry Woodley

Another memorable rescue, in 2019 at Sheringham, was that of a man whose leg was trapped between two boulders as waves crashed around his neck

Mr Woodley said: "We were the first ones there and we had to think really quickly on our feet - he was basically drowning in front of us.

"I had the other two coastguards hold his head up above the water and I called in everyone else we needed. 

"He was trapped for so long they sent a surgical team down from Cambridge because they were thinking about removing his leg. But to everyone's relief he was released. That was one job where we definitely saved a life."

Jerry Woodley in the Wessex search and rescue helicopter based at RAF Coltishall in 1985. Picture: c

Jerry Woodley in the Wessex search and rescue helicopter based at RAF Coltishall in 1985. - Credit: courtesy of Jerry Woodley

Coastguard duties were somewhat different when Mr Woodley joined in 1983, when they used to do 'storm watches' whenever the wind was over force eight, and practiced firing rescue ropes out to sea twice a week. 

Discovering hand grenades and other unexploded Second World War ordnance was more common then, but now the Coastguard is far busier, and they had a record number of call-outs last summer.  

Mr Woodley said he had considered continuing to his 40th anniversary, but as more Coastguard systems were going digital in 2022, this seemed the right time to step aside and make way for the younger generation.

"Good luck to them," he said. "We've got a young team now who are tech-savvy. I don't have an iPhone. My boss has provided me with an iPad, but I don't know how to switch it on."

It comes as Mr Woodley also has also given up a 25-year-long career as a rugby union referee. For the last 13 years of that he was based at Holt Rugby Club and he has refereed for every side in Norfolk. 

"I've called it a day on that because I managed to tear both my calf muscles last season," he said. "So I'm going to find myself with some spare time."

But Mr Woodley has no plans to quit his 'main' job, as a self-employed builder, and hopes to spend his extra free hours mountain biking and helping his son build a bungalow.

He said: "I think I'll always be keeping one eye seaward. As with any coastguard, you never really finish."