Navy in firing line over new in-shore shooting range: Trawler incident adds to the fears of fishing communities opposed to planned 30-mile military exercise area. Peter Dunn reports

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The Independent Online
NAVY commanders are going to have to get past the formidable figure of Esther Chesterfield if they are to achieve their ambition to open a new 30-mile in-shore shooting range along the south Cornish coast.

Mrs Chesterfield's present mood, shared by other fishing families around Falmouth, Mevagissey, Fowey and Looe, makes this seem unlikely. Last Sunday her sons, Edwin, 40 and David, 35, both Mevagissey men, were out fishing in their boat, Frances, when a British minesweeper, on a Nato exercise with two Norwegian sweepers, turned across their stern and tore away half a mile of trawling gear. The Navy boats were in line abreast, trailing anti-mine tackle which includes explosive mine cable cutters.

The Frances was pair-trawling seven miles off Dodman Point in calm conditions with another Mevagissey boat, the 11-ton Jolie Brise, skippered by Barry Gowing, who said his vessel was almost swamped when HMS Dulverton snagged his cables and hauled Jolie Brise backwards. The incident has been embarrassing for the Navy which has been trying to persuade local communities that its new firing range, due to open late next year, would give priority to the safety of holiday and fishing craft.

Mr Gowing said he had raised HMS Dulverton on the emergency radio channel as the Navy flotilla approached. 'I asked . . . if her gear was in the water and when she said 'yes' I told her she was outside the official mining areas we'd got on our charts.

'She said, 'orders change'. I asked her to keep clear of our gear and he replied, 'we're trying', and he never spoke to me again after that. When he got quarter of a mile astern he changed course right across our gear.

'Next thing we knew we were being dragged astern at four knots. Water was coming over the stern. If there'd been a sea running we'd have been swamped and probably drowned.

'They've got away with these things for so many years now they just seem to think they can do what they like and sod everyone else.'

Mrs Chesterfield, wife of a retired fisherman and a parish councillor in Mevagissey, is spitting barnacles. 'What got me about it is the arrogance,' she says. 'We're fighting everyone these days to remain fishing, the European market, our own government and now it seems as if we're taking on the British Navy as well.'

Tempers in local fishing communities from Falmouth to Looe have not been improved by the Navy's insistence that the two trawlers should have got out of HMS Dulverton's way.

Lt-Cdr Damian Belgeonne, a Navy spokesman in London, said: 'International regulations say that all vessels give way to mine counter-measure vessels. So one would have expected the fishermen to notice this and to have kept clear.'

Lt-Cdr Belgeonne denied claims that the mine sweepers were operating outside official zones. 'These vessels were entitled to be where they were and the fishing vessels are expected to manoeuvre away,' he said.

The incident, now followed by a pounds 4,000 claim for compensation from the two trawler skippers, could not have happened at a more delicate time for the Navy. Closure of the Portland naval base, home of its gunfire support section, will mean the transfer of 280 personnel to Plymouth. It wants to transfer exercises from its seafiring range off Lulworth Cove, Dorset, to Cornwall.

Central to this plan will be the use of Dodman Point, a 300ft headland, as an observation post. The National Trust meets next month to decide whether the Navy can use the site.

Naval spokesmen have stressed that stringent security precautions, including safety boats, will protect small boats during its 72 proposed exercises a year.

Scallopers and inshore fishermen remain unhappy about practice shells whistling over their lobster pots. On 23 May they will join a multi-interest delegation, led by Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat MP for Truro and St Austell, to plead their case with Jeremy Hanley, Minister of State for the Armed Forces.

Mr Taylor said: 'Fishermen are very worried, as are other boat-users, about the reliability of the Navy actually spotting them. We've been pressing that the best thing is to stick with Lulworth.'

Mrs Chesterfield also remains unforgiving. 'You can tell the Navy that Mrs Chesterfield has no confidence in their word whatsoever.'

(Photograph and map omitted)