Helping keep the water safe for everyone

Marine police officers out on patrol
Marine police officers out on patrol
M275. Picture: Cesar Moreno Huerta

Traffic clearing coming out of Portsmouth after two-vehicle crash on M275

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It’s been a beautiful summer for strolling along the coastlines of Southsea, Stokes Bay, Chichester and Hayling, watching the yachts and boats coming in and out of the marinas which make the south famous.

For those lucky enough to have their own vessels, conditions have been fantastic for sailing, and with the weather set to improve again heading into September, this will continue.

Everyone living in this area will be familiar with the Coastguard – the helicopters buzzing overhead to rescue people should the worse happen, and the boats which come to the rescue of those who find themselves stricken at sea.

They’ll also be familiar with the work of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, scrambling to go to the aid of those who really need help, putting their own lives on the line to help others.

But perhaps what is less known is the work of the police in trying to help make sure those tragedies don’t occur in the first place.

Hampshire police have their own marine unit, based at Hamble marina and with an area that covers not only all of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, but also helps out neighbouring counties as and when it’s needed.

The idea behind the Marine Unit is to try and prevent accidents and incidents happening in the first place.

The unit is actually part of Special Branch, and as such it works closely with UK Border Agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Fisheries Agency, harbourmasters, port authorities and the naval military police.

But it also works with the boating community to help detect and solve any crimes that have taken place.

‘There are a lot of people out here all the time, who know when a boat is behaving suspiciously, or who might have seen a boat that’s been reported stolen,’ says PC Matt Gransden, from Gosport, who has been working in the Marine Unit for the past 18 months of his nine-year police career.

He was talking to me from one of the Marine Unit’s RIBs – Rigid Inflatable Boats – shortly before we headed off to Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

He adds: ‘That’s why it’s very important that we are seen in the marinas in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight – people know we’re there, know they can come and speak to us, and know what we do.’

It is a concept that fell out of favour with the police during the 80s and 90s, but which has come back with the advent of community policing.

But Matt and his colleague PC Kerry Murray, who’s been with the unit since 2005 and who retires in October after a 30-year police career, give it an up-to-date twist.

‘We use Twitter to speak to people in the boating community,’ says Matt.

‘For example, someone reports a boat stolen and we put the picture on Twitter, asking people if they’ve seen it, and often someone will come back and say they know where it is.’

There’s a limit to how much Kerry and Matt can tell me, as some of the thefts are still going through the courts, but it’s clear how important working with the community is to them.

And it’s not all about crime, either.

The Marine Unit this summer launched a campaign called Wash and Slow.

Just as the land-based traffic police track and prosecute those of us who like to break the speed limit in our cars, the officers in the Marine Unit want to see boats obeying harbour speed limits.

As we head out to the Isle of Wight, a small speedboat is whizzing towards us. Kerry, who is skipper for the day, turns the RIB so the driver of the speedboat can see the Police logo on its side.

The other boat immediately slows down, much like speeding drivers on a motorway when they spot a police car.

‘The speed limit is there for a reason,’ said Matt.

‘When you sail, you leave a wash behind the boat.

‘The faster you go, the bigger the wash, and that wash can do damage to other boats moored in the harbour, and even with small boats cause them to capsize.

‘As it reaches them it can knock them together, or against the pontoon.

‘We have people here who live aboard their boats, and say if they’re making a cup of tea or something, and a big wash comes that they’re not prepared for, that could mean boiling water all over them.

‘That’s the message we’re trying to get across – for people to slow down.’

As soon as we reach the open water of the Solent, Kerry opens the throttle on the RIB and we’re soon skipping across the waves towards Cowes.

Most people in other craft wave and smile at us as we pass, aware of how much fun boating on a nice sunny day can be.

But it’s not all about messing about in the sunshine, jumping over Red Funnel wakes and almost losing your baseball cap.

In July last year the Marine Unit was called to assist when the torso of a man was washed up on Southsea beach, hunting for more body parts.

One of the unit’s other officers found the victim’s legs. That victim was David Guy, killed and dismembered by David Hilder, who was jailed this summer for the crime.

There is another facet to their work, as well.

Part of their beat is the Fawley Oil Refinery, which is off limits to anyone approaching from the marine side because it could be used as a target for terrorists.

Having been to Cowes marina, patrolled the waterway and stopped off for a quick chat with the harbourmaster and some sailors, we pass the refinery on our way back to Hamble.

Even though it has its own tight security, Matt and Kerry keep a weather eye out as we pass for fishermen who venture a little too close to it.

One such fisherman moves off after a quick word from Kerry, and we resume our trip.

It’s quick, enjoyable work on a summer’s day in the sunshine, and though each time Matt and Kerry speak to other boaters, or flash their police caps in their direction it’s done with good humour, the message gets across that the police are patrolling the motorway just as they do on land.

Every facet of their job – from being part of the boating community, the counter-terrorism work, patrolling the border, and promoting Wash and Slow – is part of Project Kraken.

It forms part of the National Maritime Security Strategy, and its aim is to provide a hostile environment to terrorists and criminals looking to disrupt the everyday lives and safety of those who live, work or travel through the Solent.

Even after spending one day on the water with Matt and Kerry, it’s obvious it’s working.

TOMBSTONING

While we’re on shore, Matt and I visit the Cowes deputy harbourmaster, Roy Hodgson.

This summer the harbour’s Trinity Landing has had a problem with people tombstoning.

Normally associated with teenagers’ hi-jinks, the reality is more sinister.

Quite often it’s older people, often drunk, who decide to jump off a wall, pier or pontoon into the water below.

Portsmouth’s piers and docks have seen their share of tombstoners, and every summer there are warnings which go unheeded.

But tragedy can easily strike if the tide has gone out too far.

‘We don’t want to spoil people’s fun, but what we do want to do is save people’s lives or save them from serious injury,’ said Roy.

‘All we can do is get the message out that we’re working with the Marine Unit and the land-based police to try and stop it.

‘We also had a man, in his 30s, who decided to go for a swim right into the path of the Red Funnel ferry.

‘He was drunk, and he thought it would be acceptable to swim there, so we asked one of the patrol RIBs to go and pull him out, and he’s been reported to the police.

‘There are plenty of other places to swim here.’

KILL CORD

Shortly before I went out with the Marine Unit, a tragedy had happened in Padstow, Cornwall.

A father and daughter were killed when the RIB they were in flipped up, throwing all its passengers overboard.

Tragically, the boat kept going round in a tight circle, its propeller turning the water red with blood, according to eye witnesses.

The tragedy, say Matt and Kerry, could have been avoided if the boat’s driver had been using the boat’s kill cord.

Simply, it’s a cord which attaches the driver to the boat. If the driver is pulled away from the consol, or thrown overboard, the cord comes out of the boat and stops the engine.

As we motor slowly through one of Cowes’ many marinas, Kerry and Matt spot a speedboat not far away.

On the prow a teenage boy is sunning himself. As we edge closer we can see the driver is wearing his kill cord.

‘Good,’ says Matt. ‘Though if the boat goes over and that boy is thrown out, the boat could run him down.

‘People just don’t think it’ll happen to them... until it does.

‘It’s so important to use a kill cord. They can prevent things like Padstow happening so easily.’

TESTING, TESTING

On OUR way back from the Isle of Wight we catch up with officers on one of the other patrol boats, who are also on duty in the Solent.

It’s a serendipitous meeting, because they’ve just been given a new speaker to test at sea.

So, while the patrol boat moves off, it’s our job to indicate if we can hear what they’re saying to us, and how far they can get before we can’t hear any more.

‘We get quite a lot of equipment to test,’ said Matt.

‘Some of it is useful, like this, but some of it isn’t.

‘We’ll take it out, use it, and then let them know what we think of it.’

The speaker, Matt explained, would typically be used to tell boats to heave-to at sea and allow boarding to take place. It could also be used within a marina to alert all the boats there to an emergency.

This time we found the range to be good, though not when the RIB’s engines were at full throttle.