It was a wet and windy day when the phone rang and it was the coastguard.

West Bay Coastguard Rescue Team had invited me along to take part in a training exercise and we’d had it planned for months. With a storm due to hit west Dorset that same weekend, and ferocious winds already picking up, I assumed the call was to tell me our plans would have to be postponed – I was wrong.

But it wasn’t for me to grumble, given the coastguard officers – all of whom are volunteers – cannot pick and choose when their help is needed. Storm or no storm, if a call comes in, they rush to the rescue.

I arrived to meet the team at the station on George Street and we made our way to a spot between West Bay and Eype. Trying to get the layers of heavy safety wear on was a challenge in itself, particularly when stood on top of a blustery cliff. I was astounded to learn the team’s response time is about 10 minutes, while it took me double that simply trying to get the clothing on.

The 12-strong West Bay team is specially-trained in cliff rescue. In 2018, officers responded to more rescues of that kind than the previous five years combined.

They cover an extensive patch, from Abbotsbury to the Seatown, but are often called to provide back-up to the Lyme Regis team. With Lyme Regis Coastguard Rescue Team specialising in mud rescue as well, that back-up is often reciprocated.

I’d volunteered to go an assisted descent – used, for example, when it’s necessary for a doctor or vet to be taken down a cliff to treat a casualty or injured animal - only, with the weather being as poor as it was, the team took pity on me and we moved the exercise to a nearby quarry, rather than a steep cliff face.

While the team did an equipment check and began to prepare the area for the exercise, assembling a hoist and securing ropes, I couldn’t help but notice the huge, crashing waves below us and wondered how on earth they must feel when they’re called to rescue someone in the water.

I watched as the officers meticulously figured out the angles at which they needed to insert the stakes to support the ropes and winch structure which would take their weight as they lowered themselves up and down the slope.

In this instance, it was a training exercise, but I couldn’t fathom how it was possible to do the same while under the pressure of a real rescue, in poor weather conditions and with minutes to spare. They obviously can, and do, but I felt an overwhelming respect for the skill and sharp-thinking involved.

It was time for me to play my part and I had become a little nervous. It was a good job we’d moved to the quarry as I might well have lost my bottle if we’d gone ahead with the original plan. For a task as simple as walking, it was tremendously difficult to do so, backwards, down a vertical drop. There was little need for me to worry as both the officer assisting me and I were in the capable hands of the rest of the team operating the winch system. It was a slow process, which required patience and a calm approach to avoid tripping on the uneven ground, but it was hard battling my natural instinct to try and position myself upright again and to rush to get it over with.

My clumsy footing made me trip into the officer two or three times and, while I was still a bag of nerves due to my surroundings and current position, I did feel extremely safe thanks to the officer’s reassuring words and manner. I put myself into the shoes of a casualty and thought about  how the unfaltering patience and cool-headedness shown by the officer must make a world of difference in what is surely a terrifying situation.

Clambering back up was just as difficult, fighting the urge to pull myself forward rather than walking almost horizontally. To think a coastguard officer had to do this not only for themselves, but while carrying other people, often injured, to safety, was admirable.

I spoke with some of the officers as they continued the exercise. Station officer Mark Collins told me what it takes to be a coastguard.

“From the minute your pager goes off, the adrenaline starts,” he said. “You immediately start planning.

“Age doesn’t matter and we have a range here from 26 to 62. It’s the enthusiasm that counts. Of course, fitness levels are very important. An officer is only as strong as their team.”

I wondered if, even with 15 years’ experience, there was anything which fazed Mark.

“Water rescues can still be nerve-wracking,” he said. “You have to mitigate putting officers in the water.

“I’ve never forgotten my first shout. It was windy and the waves were huge. The person didn’t make it.”

The West Bay team is made up of all ages and backgrounds. Some have full-time jobs, some are retired and some are self-employed, meaning any time they spend on a shout is time they are not earning money. They volunteer purely to give back to the community.

The team attended 60 incidents in 2018, 23 more than the previous year, and remain on call 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. They also put in hundreds of hours of training each year.

The officers work together with the ambulance and fire service to provide the best possible emergency response and care and, although they are not medics, play a vital and life-saving role by getting people away from danger and to safety.

Many of us appreciate how hard it can be juggling a job with family life. I wondered what motivated the officers to add what seemed to me to be the additional strain and huge, sometimes daunting, responsibility of being a coastguard officer to the mix.

Speaking to each officer, it didn’t seem to be a strain to them at all. They all echoed the same feelings as officer John Preston, who told me: “We want to give back to our community. What better way to do that than helping and supporting those in trouble.”