Coastguard logs reveal ‘panic’ and people overboard on small boats crossing English Channel
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Coastguard logs reveal ‘panic’ and people overboard on small...

A series of incidents in the English Channel has shown the hazards faced by those making the crossings and the responses from British lifesavers (Picture: Gareth Fuller, PA wire)

British rescue crews saved people from the water and came to the aid of sinking dinghies in a series of small boat incidents this year.

In some cases, the lifesavers battled atrocious winter conditions and gruelling shifts as they intercepted crossings in the English Channel.

Most of the alarms were raised by the French authorities, who tracked or shadowed overcrowded boats leaving their coastline headed for the UK via the hazardous shipping strait, HM Coastguard (HMC) reports show.

Distress calls to emergency services on both sides of the Channel were occasionally made the occupants themselves, including from callers who said the flimsy vessels were taking on water or having engine problems.

Up to 70 people at a time were rescued in calls attended by Border Force, Coastguard and Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) over the first four months of 2023, the HMC reports obtained by show.

They can be disclosed as the government’s crackdown on small boats and people smugglers falls into sharp relief in the wake of figures showing net migration hit a record high of 606,000 people last year.

In one call out, a person in a boat told British emergency services that the vessel the size of a car was ‘taking on water’ and they could see land.

The RNLI’s Dover All-Weather Lifeboat recovered 44 people back to the port after the alarm on March 6, 2023.

A small boat packed with people is rescued by the Border Force’s Defender in the Channel on November 13, 2022 (Picture: In Pictures via Getty Images)

In another response, a ‘poor quality’ dinghy collapsed during a recovery operation by the Border Force’s Defender vessel.

The ‘overloaded’ boat was being shadowed in the Dover Strait by the French ship the Loire, the report states. All the persons onboard (PoBs) were taken to Dover after the early hours alarm on April 8.

The inflatable had been monitored by the French authorities leaving Calais and was believed to be either a crossing vessel or a ‘taxi boat’ used to transfer or pick up occupants heading to the UK.

On January 30, a person spent 10 minutes in rough water after falling while scrambling to get off a dinghy which was being shadowed by French Navy’s support ship Garonne, another log shows.

The casualty, who had hold of a life ring, was recovered from the strait by the Border Force’s Volunteer vessel with around 50 others, including children, being taken by the agency’s Hurricane catamaran back to Dover. An update from the Hurricane in the timelog states that the dinghy burst when it came into contact with the vessel’s dive platform and there was ‘a lot of panic’ among those onboard.

A group of people are brought ashore in Dungeness, Kent, by the RNLI following a small boat incident in December 2021 (Picture: Gareth Fuller, PA)

On February 7, a ‘distress phase situation’ was declared by the French authorities who said there were 60 people in a dinghy with ‘water in the boat and too many people on board’. The Border Force’s Ranger vessel intercepted the boat in the strait and recovered all the PoB back to the Western Jet Foil processing centre in Dover.

In another message relayed from a French co-ordinator in Calais, HMC was told: ‘They speak English. There are around 43 people in the boat, including women maybe children. Everybody is inside the boat.

‘But there is some water in the boat. The engine is not very good.’

Some of the small boat rescues in 2023

January 30casualty rescued from water

The Border Force’s Volunteer retrieves the person while sister ship the Hurricane takes around 50 people to Dover

February 10 Border force rescues 41 people

UK rescuers intervene after a report from the French authorities of a boat taking on water and with engine problems

February 13report of ‘water water’ from boat

The Border Force’s Ranger vessel responds after Kent Police relay a report of a small boat in trouble, taking 49 people to Dover

april 4rnli rescues two people from water

The Dover lifeboat and Border Force respond after the French declare a ‘distress phase situation’ involving 60 people

The boat, which had been sighted by French police leaving Sangatte beach, was intercepted by the Border Force’s Typhoon in the UK’s search and rescue region on February 10. The number of PoB was downgraded to 41 by the UK Coastguard, with the Typhoon rescuing all on board.

Two days later, an eight-metre-long rubber boat with 49 occupants was intercepted by the Border Force’s Ranger ship with support from a Coastguard helicopter, another incident log shows.

In a call relayed by the French authorities one of the occupants reported ‘water on boat’ and said there were ‘women and babies onboard’.   

Another message via Kent Police said: ‘Can hear a lot of people in the background. Keep hearing them saying “water water”.’

All of those onboard were taken safely back to Dover.

A crew from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Dover station deliver casualty care during a small boat rescue (Picture: RNLI/

Another boat was intercepted after a 999 call where the message as relayed to HMC stated: ‘Another call regarding migrants in a sinking boat.

‘Really small black boat filling up with water coming into Dover. Around 50 PoB, females and children. The boat is sinking, possibly some people hurt.’

The Typhoon took all 44 on board back to Dover after intercepting the plastic vessel in the treacherous Dover Strait on May 2.

An insight into the toll on the British crews is given in a log for a rescue on April 4 where the rescuers intercepted a dinghy carrying 55 people.

A Coastguard helicopter message says there is ‘a lot going on and we have a fatigued R163 crew approaching handover’.

The response in the strait, the narrowest part of the Channel, involved various agencies, with the Defender recovering all the PoB to the port.

Two people were ‘promptly’ recovered from the water during a response by the Dover lifeboat on April 6 after falling in for a couple of minutes, according to another log. An earlier report relayed by the French of ‘people in water, boat sinking’ received shortly after 6am was ‘confirmed false’ by a UK tactical commander three hours later. Thirty people were taken to Dover by the RNLI crew while the Hurricane and Loire provided safety cover.

Another emergency involved a ‘heavily overloaded’ small boat transiting the strait which was intercepted by British crews after entering the UK search and rescue area. A message from the Loire states: ‘Boat lost and water coming in between Dover and Calais, UK side.’

People who undertook a crossing from France wait to be disembarked in Dover on Friday, June 17, 2022 (Picture: AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

The Defender reported that the boat folded in on itself and collapsed during the recovery operation before the crew rescued all 35 people onboard.

The timelog shows how the UK assets, also including the RNLI and a Coastguard helicopter, had responded after the vessel was initially spotted leaving a beach in Calais and shadowed by the Loire.

British crews reacted in weather conditions that included visibility of less than 50 metres and Force 5 waves of up to 8ft during a rescue on April 10. The Defender recovered 49 people, including 12 ‘minors’, after reaching a dinghy being accompanied by the French Pluvier Naval vessel.

As the rescue ship approached Dover, the crew sent a message to HMC saying they would have to ‘reduce speed as getting hammered’.

Men come ashore in Dungeness after making the journey across the Channel from France on December 19, 2021 (Picture: Dan Kitwood, Getty)

An insight into the tactics of those organising the launches is also given in the logs. People smugglers were charging around 2,500 euros (£2,178) per person for a place on a rubber boat last year, according to separate information from Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

The prices were based on the feasibility of crossings and whether the journey was being sought by an individual or family group, and are likely to have risen, the European Union agency said.

A report from the French authorities notes three persons on a possible ‘taxi boat’ ferrying people from the Gravelines commune 26 miles south to Calais before the onwards cross-channel journey.

The message states: ‘A person on board very organised. He knew where to go from Gravelines to Calais. He is well organised to do that.

‘Then he turned boat towards England.’

The ‘overloaded’ small boat was shadowed by French ship the Fourmentin in the early hours of February 14 before all 43 PoB were rescued by the Defender and taken to Dover.

The harrowing conditions of people trying to cross the Channel has been documented by RNLI lifesavers (Picture: RNLI/

The danger faced by those attempting to cross one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes was underscored in December 2022, when four people died after a small boat capsized in freezing water.

The tragedy followed another which claimed 31 lives in November 2021, the worst loss of life in the Channel for 30 years.

Last month, campaign group Freedom from Torture told that new safe routes to the UK must be opened up to ‘reduce the push factors that drive people to make dangerous journeys’.

Controversial migration policies initiated by the government were coming under fierce criticism even before yesterday’s figures were released by the Office for National Statistics. A backlog in processing claims from the 44,797 people who crossed the Channel in small boats up to March 2023 has been revealed in separate figures by the Home Office.

The statistics follow Rishi Sunak making ‘stop the boats’ one of his five pledges, with the government introducing the Illegal Migration Bill.

Currently going through parliament, the legislation would mean anyone attempting to seek asylum in the UK through ‘safe’ countries and routes judged to be illegal can be detained and removed.

A damaged inflatable dinghy, outboard motors, life jackets and sleeping bags abandoned on the French coast (Picture: Pascal Rossignol, Reuters)

A spokesperson for the RNLI said: ‘Our crews are tasked in the UK by HM Coastguard to assist anyone who is in trouble on or in the water and will go to the aid of those crossing the Channel in small, unseaworthy craft, when tasked to do so. We are incredibly proud of our crews who continue to respond selflessly to their pagers, day or night, simply to help others.

‘They have responded in extremely demanding search and rescue environments with continued dedication and commitment. Everyone at the RNLI is focused on our core purpose to save lives at sea.’

The logs disclosed by HMC, which is part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, show incidents involving more than 30 persons on board in the four months up to May 2023. The documents are considered working reports of ongoing incidents and not completed records of the events.

A Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesperson said: ‘HM Coastguard answers every call it receives and works tirelessly to save every life it can.’

MORE : British crews backed by drones rescued 500 people from Channel in one day

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