Passengers rescued after river ferry is swept downstream

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Passengers on a chain ferry had to be rescued by a lifeboat crew yesterday after the vessel broke free in gale-force winds and drifted towards stormy seas.

The ferry in Dartmouth, south Devon, was carrying 34 passengers, two crew and 15 cars when force nine winds and powerful currents broke the chains guiding it across the river Dart. With no source of power of its own, the fully laden boat began floating down river.

Stewart Elliman, the watch officer for Brixham coastguard, said the vessel - the Dartmouth Higher Ferry - had drifted about 500 metres in "abysmal" weather at 11.40am before the crew stopped it about a mile from the sea by grabbing a mooring buoy. "There was a force nine gale coming right down the river and quite a force of water," he said.

Lifeboat and coastguard crews were contacted after 999 calls from passengers. Eleven passengers were put on to a ferry and a lifeboat took 23.

Mr Elliman said there were no serious injuries and that the chain ferry had been secured about 100 metres from shore. High winds meant it had not been possible to get cars off the vessel by yesterday afternoon. Coastguards said the vehicles would be removed only when the ferry had been pulled back to its normal moorings and reconnected to its chains.

A spokesman for Brixham coastguard said: "The passengers ... will want to get their cars back and go home. No one wants to leave the scene without their cars." The ferry is operated by Dart Marina Investments. The company was not available for comment.

Earlier yesterday, a ferry carrying 105 people from Rosslare in Ireland to France narrowly missed hitting rocks off the Cornish coast after losing power. A lifeboat and two tugboats were dispatched but the crew managed to repair the vessel and it completed the journey to Cherbourg.