Water search team dedicated to harrowing task of finding bodies

David Fuller-Shapcott of Borders Underwater Search Team pictured in Kelso.
David Fuller-Shapcott of Borders Underwater Search Team pictured in Kelso.

WITH its many hills, rivers and lochs, the Borders is one of the most scenic areas of Britain.

But those features which make it so inviting are the same ones that can turn a fun day out into tragedy. Hills can become treacherous places in bad weather, while rivers and lochs, so inviting on a warm summer’s day, can lure the unwary to their deaths.

It was a spate of incidents during the 1990s, including the fatal crash when a fire engine smashed through the parapet of Kelso bridge and into the swirling waters of the Tweed below, that became the catalyst for the formation of the Borders Underwater Search Team.

Comprised of divers from the local sub-aqua club, the outfit has now built up a substantial bank of knowledge and expertise in searching for and retrieving missing people from local waterways.

Led since its inception by local diver and farmer David Fuller-Shapcott as team leader, it was formed in October 1997.

“Members of the Kelso Sub-Aqua Club collectively recognised the prospect of being able to do something useful and helpful to the community with our diving qualifications,” David said by way of explanation when asked about the team’s founding.

He revealed: “In fact, the team actually does very little diving in terms of submersible activity. We’ve done a little bit for the RNLI, but not very much. Mostly it is surface water searching. A typical search can involve, particularly here in the Borders, riverbank searches, and checking islands and caulds for missing people. Most of our work is related around missing persons – that’s our bread and butter work nowadays.

“What our diving qualifications and experience provides us with is in-water skills, in-water confidence and water dynamics knowledge if you like.

“It enables people to know what they can and can’t do. It enables people to recognise their limitations, which, of course, is very important.”

David went on: “Being able to operate a boat for instance, which is something we do in the diving environment. We’ve now got a second boat and can use these to get across to an island, put somebody on an island to search it or put first-aid people onto an island, or mountain rescue team people. Our boats are also capable of taking a stretcher.

“The second boat is a relatively new venture. We’ve only had that for about eight months now. We used to literally have to swim down the river, down each bank searching it, with the boat going down the middle of the river. Now more often than not we take a boat down each bank.

“You’re actually quicker and you get a better perspective of the bank from the extra height you get from being in the boat. It means you are looking across the water from above normal eye level. But water reflection can be a problem. If you get sun reflecting off the water, you can’t see into the water at all.”

Last year was the team’s busiest yet with seven call-outs. The average has tended to be four or five in previous years.

But that doesn’t take into account the number of times team members are put on stand-by.

David says of the occasions the team is called out, nearly half of those result in the actual location of a missing person. And although it may seem a relatively small number of call-outs, the team has actually saved two lives in the 15 years since its inception and recovered the bodies of a number of people.

David said: “Recovering a body is part of what we’re here for. A lot of what we do is repatriation to the family. In many cases it is usually someone, a vulnerable person, who has done away with themselves.

“And more often than not in the river they do succeed. It’s quite hard to save life if the person is that determined and goes into a river. “

But the rescuers have managed this feat also, saving someone who had become seriously hypothermic after jumping from the new Kelso bridge into the river.

“If someone has gone missing, being able to recover a body allows family to at least go on with the grieving process.

“All of us have what is termed ‘police forensic input training’ and therefore dealing with sensitive scenes is something we can do. Everyone is also first-aid qualified one way or another.”

A stand at a recent Kelso farmers’ market saw the team raise enough cash to fund one of the six swift-water rescue training places on a course to be completed this autumn.

With 12 volunteers, David says the team is always keen to recruit more people. The only caveat is that everyone has to be a qualified diver – even if their contribution to the team is mainly administration.

He went on: “People have to also be able to make a commitment to training throughout the year. It is not particularly arduous, but there is a commitment needed to be prepared to drop everything at a moment’s notice – day or night, weekend or working week – when there is a call-out.

“In saying that, however, the number of times that need people to drop everything during the working day is not huge. More often than not in the evening or at weekends. “

On the occasions when such a alert does happen it can result in incidents like that last year, where a Dutch woman went missing from near Bowhill, outside Selkirk.

“That meant three consecutive days searching the waterways around Bowhill. Then there was the guy who went missing about four years ago – we had four consecutive weekends searching the Tweed from Leaderfoot to Norham. That was a long stint.

“But you are part of a team – that’s the point. Every single volunteer doesn’t have to be available all the time. But you do need to make a commitment to training, which is evening or weekend.”

Kelso swimming pool is where the bulk of the training takes place and there is a requirement for people to be basically fit.

David stressed: “If you spend a day walking down a river, you’re going to need to be reasonably fit to do that. About three years ago, three of us did 10 miles in the water, in a day, and we were exhausted.

“The water was shallow and rocks were green and slimy, which meant you were constantly slipping. Not an easy thing to do that. Much easier to search in deep water than shallow. The risk of falling over is much higher in shallow water too.”

As team leader, David has to utilise his limited resources as best he can and that means knowing how to play to people’s strengths: “There are some people who are perhaps less fit, but more able at organising, or controlling or co-ordinating.”

With more than 180 years diving experience, and over 3,000 hours underwater between team members, the Borders unit is unique in the UK.

“We have been faced with some difficult jobs in the past, particularly in the recovery of bodies of children. That is very difficult, especially when you have kids of your own. But you just have to deal with it and get on with the job because people are depending on you.”

David and his colleagues are now mentally preparing themselves for the summer – when soaring temperatures can lure people into local lochs and rivers for a refreshing cooling off.

Sadly, some of those who do so may get into trouble or even lose their lives. Either way, the Borders Underwater Search Team will be there, ready to respond if needed and put themselves at risk for the sake of the rest of us.

And we Borderers should be thankful for that.