Hoax distress calls endanger lives of Welsh lifeboat crews

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The Independent Online

The voice was clear and calm despite conveying a dire emergency at sea. Speaking across the airwaves to a radio operator at Holyhead Coastguard, the caller said: "This is the 32ft fishing vessel the Caprice. We have total engine failure."

The caller said there were five people aboard the Caprice and gave precise co-ordinates. Then the radio link went dead. Coastguards immediately requested the launch of the lifeboat at Llandudno, north Wales, in 40-knot winds and four-metre seas.

After two hours of fruitless searching, it was obvious to the lifeboat's seven-man crew, the youngest of whom was 17, that there had been no engine failure nor, indeed, any vessel called Caprice. They had again fallen victim to a hoaxer who is plaguing the lifeboat service in north Wales.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) said yesterday it believed the same man was behind at least four hoaxes in the past six weeks, putting the lives of its volunteer crews at risk and costing the charity almost £20,000.

Marcus Elliott, the operations manager of the Llandudno lifeboat, said: "What this man is doing is despicable. On Saturday night our crew put to sea in dangerous conditions in darkness to answer an emergency which, like any other, they have to treat as genuine.

"When they came back to find it was a hoax they were very angry, not only at the risk they had taken but also because if there had been a genuine emergency, they would not have been able to help. If you printed their actual words, it would just be a line of asterisks."

The latest incident happened at 9.40pm on Saturday when the main Coastguard station for north Wales at Holyhead received a message on VHF radio channel 16, the frequency used for distress calls, directing rescuers to a notorious area of sandbanks in Conwy Bay.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) yesterday released a recording of the call. It hopes listeners will recognise the voice of the hoaxer, who has a mature north Wales accent.

After the caller gave a fake position and said he had laid his anchor, the channel went dead.

Experts said the fact the man gave a precise location in latitude and longitude, as well as his knowledge of radio procedures, meant he probably had a nautical background and local knowledge.

The call, almost certainly made from land, was from a hand-held VHF radio of a type which can be bought easily in marine equipment shops.

One member of the crew involved in the latest incident said it was possible the hoaxer was deliberately luring RNLI vessels out to dangerous locations. Les Jones, 46, a father-of-three, said: "He could have killed us. Whoever the hoaxer is, he knows something about boats and has given the boat's position on Conwy bar sandbanks. He probably knew that this is a very dangerous area when you're coming from deep sea to a more shallow sea with a sandbank. He knew this would be a good place to see a boat turn over."

After reaching the location given for the Caprice, the lifeboat crew set off flares and spent two hours searching for people in the water.

North Wales Police was last night still investigating reports that a man dressed in a hooded anorak was seen on a headland overlooking the search site late on Saturday night.

The series of hoaxes, started on 20 November when a Mayday call was received saying the boat Blue Phoenix was stranded two miles off Rhyl.

On 7 December, the Llandudno in-shore lifeboat was called out at 11.54am after the Santa Monica reported engine failure in the Great Orme area west of Llandudno.

A day later, the Llandudno and Rhyl off-shore lifeboats were sent to Liverpool Bay to answer a distress call from a fishing boat, the Brecon, with an injured crewman aboard. All three calls gave precise positions in latitude and longitude; all three were hoaxes.

Each launch of an off-shore lifeboat costs the RNLI £5,800, while the launch of an in-shore inflatable boat costs £2,200.

A spokesman for the MCA said: "These hoax calls are wasteful and potentially life-threatening. Those who risk their own safety to rescue others should not be put at needless risk by responding to bogus distress calls."

Click to listen to a recording of one of the hoax calls