One moment the sea was flat and calm. The next, without warning, huge waves were crashing onto the beach. People were knocked off their feet and crying children had to be plucked from the water. Those who tried to flee were hemmed in by a sea wall and were continually pounded by a quick succession of 5ft-high waves.
The drama happened when Stena Line's pounds 65m superferry, Discovery, passed Felixstowe after leaving nearby Harwich for the Hook of Holland. The 126m, high-speed catamaran, described as "a block of flats that can travel at 50 miles per hour", can carry 2,000 people and 375 cars and is one of the largest in the world. It has been blamed for repeatedly causing giant waves since it first came into operation in 1996.
As a new generation of quicker, bigger passenger ships is brought into service, problems with large waves racing towards the coast have multiplied, causing havoc on holiday beaches and damage to smaller boats all along the British coastline.
The incident at Felixstowe is one of the most severe examples of a phenomenon that HM Coastguard calls "wash and wake". The new High Speed Craft (HSC) are the main cause, but more traditional ferries can also create the same effect and severe problems have been reported in Folkestone, Portsmouth and Holyhead.
Meanwhile, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has launched an investigation into "wash and wake" at Lough Neagh, Belfast, after a large wave nearly killed a small child in a pram.
Retired teacher Pauline Byford, who was on the Felixstowe beach with her grandchildren, Oliver, nine, and Lucy, six, when the waves hit, said: "It was utter chaos. We were sitting close to where the sea was gently lapping, when all of a sudden I was up to my chin in water. The children were petrified. There was no warning. The waves just came out of nowhere. A 15-month-old toddler who was playing nearby was nearly washed away."
Jo Arlow, the Ipswich and Felixstowe sector coastguard, said: "I arrived just a few minutes after the waves had struck and the damage was like Dunkirk. There were six or seven huge waves and people were thrown against the sea wall and pinned against it."
John Creswell, chairman of the Felixstowe Volunteer Rescue Service, warned that the ferry should slow down when it neared the Suffolk coast. "This was an extremely serious incident and it was lucky that no lives were lost."
Locals blame commercialism for the freak waves. Whenever the Discovery is running late, it races out of Harwich and totally ignores the effect on the Suffolk coastline, as it hurtles by, they say.
Alan Cubbin, the MCA's director of maritime safety and pollution prevention, said he was "concerned" to learn of the latest incident. "We will be investigating this and taking any necessary action to keep people on the surrounding beaches safe from the wash."
A spokeswoman for Stena Line, which has paid for 60 warning signs along the seafront, said: "Tapes of conversations between the crew and harbour pilots are being studied. We are doing everything possible to eliminate these waves."Reuse content