Spare a thought for the unarmed Waterguard

There’s been a lot of heat lately and not too much light over the methods used by HM Customs & Excise/UKBA officers boarding yachts at sea. So much heat in fact that the RYA’s legal supremo Gus Lewis called for a meeting with immigration ministers to express yachtsman’s concerns over the ‘intimidating manner’ in which they have received the Waterguard at sea.

Mr Lewis was invited aboard a UKBA cutter and spent a day in the Solent watching the teams board yachts. He was also told how Customs man Alastair Soutar, 47, lost his life while carrying out his job. The unfortunate officer was part of a team shadowing a large ketch from the North Atlantic around the top of Scotalnd and into the North Sea. The yacht was packed to the gunnels with cannabis and once the smugglers realised they were not alone they stashed the drugs into a lifeboat and booby-trapped it with a fire bomb.

As the Customs men boarded the lifeboat the incendiary device exploded setting the stash on fire. Mr Soutar leapt from the blazing deck in a bid to get back aboard the cutter but unfortunately fell between both hulls and was crushed to death. Three men were later convicted of smuggling – and one of manslaughter – and jailed.

Although this was all back in 1996, it has left a long shadow over the men who protect our waters from gangsters and their leg men. Mr Lewis was suitably impressed with what the men on the cutters have to face especially in light of the fact that they are not armed. The impressive-looking gun mounted on the bow of the UKBA cutters is in fact a fire hose posing as a cannon.

I have been boarded several times by Customs man over the years and once had a rummage crew go through the boat with a fine tooth comb. I was not injured nor was the boat damaged. It might have ruffled my sensibilities a little, but all in all I welcome these guys aboard. We need to remember that of the 35 to 45 tonnes of drugs these cutters stop each year, 80 per cent comes in on…yachts.