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Face to face with UK Border Force: lessons learned

Graham Sykes has an eventful training weekend with a last-minute vessel change, Border Force scrutiny and an overheating engine

Another yacht in the Solent with Seeker; the Border Force cutter, behind, on the day in question. Credit: Luke Tatam
Another yacht in the Solent with Seeker; the Border Force cutter, behind, on the day in question. Credit: Luke Tatam

The Border Force vessels patrolling the Channel and the coastlines of the United Kingdom are part of every sailor’s reality in the post-Brexit environment with great emphasis on protecting our borders from illegal migrants and illegal imports from the EU.

Our experience over one May weekend taught us a few lessons.

We had arranged a yacht for the weekend specifically to build miles in preparation for my Yachtmaster Offshore practical and for two friends preparing to take their RYA Day Skipper practical.

On the Thursday night we were informed the vessel was out of action. We had a late conference call and decided to charter a yacht: this pushed the price up and one of our crew dropped out, unable to justify several hundred pounds for a weekend’s sailing.

The weather forecast was grim and we suspected we may be confined to the Solent, despite having made passage plans to Weymouth or Poole from Northney.

Skipper and mate aboard Vantage of Lymington before their encounter with Border Force

Skipper and mate aboard Vantage of Lymington before their encounter with Border Force

The next day, I negotiated the bareboat charter of Vantage of Lymington from Four Seasons Yacht Charter at a very reasonable price.

Vantage is a Jeanneau 43 so our crew of five were rejoicing at the extra space – it would have been much cheaper if we had been able to recruit another five crew.

We were effectively short-handed but there were no novices aboard so we went for it. Vantage is based at Haslar Marina, which is known to me and two of the crew.

Passage plans were revised giving us several options depending on how the weather panned out and how the crew felt beyond the Needles.

On Friday night we did checks and a safety briefing on this unfamiliar vessel. By Saturday morning, Weymouth looked possible so we slipped at the top of the tide and left Portsmouth via the Swash Way Channel.

As we left Haslar, a Border Force vessel also slipped and became our shadow, right out to the Needles.

A chart showing the passage plan of a yacht around the Isle of Wight

Credit: Maxine Heath

The overfalls were wild but we made it through in 15 minutes to a more pleasant motion. We set a course for Weymouth, which, with a strong Force 5 westerly, would mean beating all the way.

We were double-reefed and although a handful in the gusts Vantage was very manageable. Some five miles offshore, a gale warning was issued for the next day for Portland to Isle of Wight.

It would be a westerly and therefore require training runs all the way home, with the contingent risks.

We had a cockpit conference and decided to turn east to circumnavigate the island instead: this would give us the same distance but without having to beat into a strengthening wind and a potentially horrible return journey.

We pushed out to 10 miles offshore to give some of the crew a new experience. Having encountered the overfalls at the Needles we were keen to avoid the overfalls off St Catherine’s Point.

Graham Sykes has been sailing for 56 years and has just qualified as a Yachtmaster. He is an ambassador for the Morning Star Trust

Graham Sykes has been sailing for 56 years and has just qualified as a Yachtmaster. He is an ambassador for the Morning Star Trust

The skies cleared and the wind settled to a steady Force 5 staying in the west and so we did a series of reaches across the wind, teaching crew members how to set the sails to a course; balance jib and main.

Vantage proved to be a good training vessel, although we never quite got to grips with the single-line reefing.

Despite the problems, putting in and shaking out reefs was the order of the day and it was good learning. We had many hours of happy sailing on that easterly trajectory.

Late in the afternoon we turned on to a beam reach to Portsmouth. This meant putting reefs back in and partially furling the jib as the wind strengthened.

Once we established a good balance we had a comfortable sail in lovely sunshine.

Continues below…

Some 15 miles from Portsmouth we were hailed on the radio by Border Force Vessel Seeker: ‘Did I own the vessel?’

I explained it was a bareboat charter. ‘Where had I come from?’ I said we had left Portsmouth that morning and they had followed us to the Needles.

‘But sir, you are coming from the south east.’

I explained that we were trying to make it a 65-mile voyage.

‘How many people have you on board?’ ‘Five’, I replied.

‘What nationality?’ ‘All British.’

These questions were asked several times in different ways. ‘Where’s your home port?’ I said Haslar Marina.

The next question floored me: ‘What berth number?’ I hadn’t a clue!

All I could say was near the end of Finger F, opposite Seeker’s mooring.

This, they accepted, and we continued on to Portsmouth. Seeker was our shadow two to three cables distant.

When we arrived at Haslar, the crew were tying bowlines and I was completing the log when we were hailed by Seeker’s second officer and two crew.

Seeker, the Border Force cutter shadowing Vantage south-east of the Isle of Wight

Seeker, the Border Force cutter shadowing Vantage south-east of the Isle of Wight

The same questions were asked, several times until the Border Force officers were satisfied I was not trafficking people or drugs.

It was all well mannered and the next day they hailed us and waved as we brought Vantage home, and I felt able to jokingly call out: ‘Five on board, all British citizens.’

On the Sunday we put our nose out of Portsmouth Harbour, turning west at the Outer Spit South Cardinal. We were close-hauled and double-reefed.

She really needed a third reef but number three reef was not set up for single line reefing, so it would take us a while.

When a gust of 30 knots registered, we made the unanimous decision to return and explore Portsmouth Harbour, which none of us had done before.

We enjoyed a splendid sail to Frater Lake where we dropped anchor, took a leisurely lunch and did some chartwork.

As we were all tired from the day before and had long car journeys ahead, we decided to hand Vantage back an hour early.

Engine on, anchor up and we headed for Haslar. As we passed the west-side moorings opposite the Portsea channel, an engine alarm sounded. It was overheating.

We switched off the engine, pointed Vantage to the side of the channel and dropped anchor. The engine compartment was very hot. Initial inspection showed all belts were intact and tensioned appropriately.

The seawater filter was clear; there were a few pints of fresh, sweet-tasting water in what had been a dry bilge that morning; no evidence of oil seepage or cracking of the casing; the engine oil had a silky feel to it and no evidence of emulsification.

We let the engine cool for half an hour and, thinking there might be a problem with the fresh-water cooling, gingerly opened the cap, using teatowels in case it was still pressurised.

However, it only took a third of a kettle of hot water. All this time we were speaking to the owner on the phone.

A quick blip of the engine proved that no water was coming from the seawater outlet. We took the impeller cover off and sent a photograph to the owner.

I thought the impeller looked distorted, but was assured it was new and fitted this week.

The next thing was to replace the impeller cover and disconnect the hosing on the outlet side of the impeller housing.

When we briefly started the engine there was a good flow of water.

The hosing was put back on, the engine started and water was coming out of the exhaust as it should. We could see a good flow through the seawater filter.

The owner theorised that a plastic bag or other debris may have blocked the inlet and then been released when we depressurised the seawater cooling system.

Two days later a similar overheat took place and it was found to be a faulty impeller so my view prevailed.

Face to face with UK Border Force: Lessons Learned

  • Reefing Lines: Be sure that you know how the reefing lines work on the particular vessel you are taking out, especially if you know you are going to need them. The single line reefing system on Jeanneau boats require the halyard not to be dropped too far down as the reefing line pulling the tack down must have upward motion, otherwise the block on the tack of the sail buckles down alongside the boom and you are just winching vast amounts of friction.
  • Take identification: I always take my passport to sea with me and insist my crew do the same, even if we are going to hug the coast.
  • Stay calm: The Border Force crew were doing their job, in a good-mannered way. Taking a cheery and relaxed approach and not being in any way defensive helped the cordiality of the situation.
  • Know your boat’s history: However well maintained an engine is, it can still go wrong. Ask when the engine was last serviced and what has been done to it. If I had known the impeller had been changed and the engine was overheating I would have started by changing the impeller.
  • Be adaptable: Whenever we go to sea, however well prepared we are, things don’t always go according to plan. Keep a cool head.

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