In 2012 the UK's search and rescue will be part privatised. What does that mean for sailors?

An announcement by the UK government that they have decided on their preferred bidder for a new search and rescue contract has raised questions about the changes being planned.

Search and rescue (SAR) services are to be part privatised in 2012, a very long-term plan that has been shaped by the government’s adoption of Public Finance Initiatives for procurement.

A lot of yachtsmen are worried about what it might mean for civilian rescue. Does this herald a future reduction in military SAR operations, perhaps even the start of a privatised system where the user pays?

Here are some answers based on released information as well a recent interview with Stuart Carruthers, the cruising manager of the RYA, who has been following developments closely.

What is the new search and rescue contract?

The contract is a Public Finance Initiative that will provide and maintain rotary wing aircraft for search and rescue for the next 25 years. The contract is worth £6 billion.

What is Soteria and what are they bidding to do?

Soteria is a consortium made up of CHC, Thales UK, Sikorsky and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Among the criteria for the bid is to maintain or improve current levels of service, so coverage of the UK’s sea area  (3.6 million km2), speed of response, time to location and time that SAR crews can spend on location are all stipulated.

Why is this change considered necessary?

Mainly because the Sikorsky Sea King helicopters being used by the Royal Navy and RAF are ageing fleets, expensive to maintain and heading towards obsolescence. The design dates from the early Sixties.


Today, four different variants are used by the military in eight different locations. Soteria proposes replacing these with Sikorsky S92 helicopters specially built and equipped for search and rescue.


By changing to one platform used across the RN and RAF, as well as the four already privatised Coastguard helicopter services at Sumburgh, Stornoway, Portland and Lee-on-Solent, it is hoped that deployment will be more logical and spares and maintenance can be standardised.

Does the change in service mean Royal Navy and RAF search and rescue involvement will be scaled back?

No, there is no suggestion of that at all, says Stuart Carruthers of the RYA. The military wants to be a full part of SAR capabilities and being able to carry those duties out is “regarded as essential operational training.”

The military have no plans to slack off training, he adds, and will be continuing to carry that out at RAF Valley in Wales.

Will the capabilities and range of SAR operations change?

Yes. The S92 helicopters proposed are 30 per cent faster than the MoD Sea Kings. The RYA has been told that they will be capable of flying in much worse adverse conditions.

The contract stipulates that the new service will be able to respond to 12 separate concurrent incidents and can be on station in very high risk and medium risk areas (eg most of the UK south coast) within 60 minutes.

Will the range of rescue will increase?

Not necessarily but the greater speed and fuel efficiency of the new helicopters will probably mean faster response times and should allow more time to be spent searching.

When will this change take place?

The new service will start in 2012. The RYA hopes that exact details of how Soteria are going to provide the service will be available to them now that the preferred bidder has been made public.