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Waterworld: the work of Essex Police's Marine Unit

As the number of summer visitors builds Essex Police's Marine Unit is once more launching an operation to keep 562 miles of coastline and waterways safe.

Waterworld: the work of Essex Police's Marine Unit

Date - 21st June 2023
By - Gary Mason

Essex has the second-longest coastline in England making it extremely attractive to visitors in the summer.

Many will want to take a dip in the sea, go kayaking or paddle-boarding or even hire a boat or a personal watercraft.

The Essex Marine Unit polices 562 miles of waterways and coastlines from the Thames at Crayford Ness to the River Stour in Manningtree, working closely with partners such as the RNLI, the National Crime Agency, Port of London Authority, Border Force and the Coastguard Agency.

Its top priority is keeping Essex marine communities safe on land and in the water – whether that be out at sea, on rivers and waterways or in the various marinas and moorings around the county.

Officers working in the dedicated Unit have launched their annual Wave-Breaker operation to tackle anti-social behaviour and promote water safety along the Essex coast.

Each weekend until the beginning of September, they will mount high-visibility patrols on the water and along the shoreline.

Last year, incidents of anti-social behaviour relating to PWCs (jet propelled water craft such as a jet skis which are either hired or owned) dropped by a quarter from those reported in 2020 – from 99 to 74.

And this year, Essex Police Marine Unit officers hope incidents will drop still further as more people realise council byelaws are in place to keep them, other water-users and a multitude of wildlife safe from harm.

There is a Code of Conduct for PWCs which the marine unit promote to users of the waterways along the coast. 

Sergeant Alex Southgate says: “Many of our rivers, creeks and estuaries are used by swimmers, paddleboarders and sailors as well as local businesses and other agencies. They are also home to many endangered and protected species of birds and wildlife.

“For these reasons, areas close to the shore are subject to speed limits which help to make sure the Essex coastline is a safe place for everyone.

“During Operation Wave-Breaker, we focus our patrols along the coast in areas known for suffering repeat water-based anti-social behaviour, such as speeding on personal watercraft.”

During the 2022 season, which ran from April until the start of September, the unit’s six officers stopped and spoke to 179 personal watercraft riders and 49 people in power boats about their behaviour on the water.

And, as a result, 164 verbal warnings were given and 12 personal watercraft riders reported for court action after speeding over the eight nautical miles per hour limit in the areas of either Lawling Creek or Mayland Creek on the River Blackwater, contravening council byelaws.

Among them were: a 34-year-old Maldon man was fined £220 and ordered to pay £150 costs and a victim surcharge of £58 – total £438; a 25-year-old Rochford man was fined £153 and ordered to pay £150 costs and a victim surcharge of £61 – total £364; a 34-year-old South Ockendon man received two fines, £40 and £80, and was ordered to pay £270 costs – total £390; and a 35-year-old Rainham man was fined £153 and ordered to pay £180 costs – total £333.

Sgt Southgate says that prosecutions are a last resort and the main focus of the unit's work is prevention.

 "We will speak with people first and educate them around the byelaws and speed limits for the areas they are in.

“However, some of the behaviour we saw last year was very dangerous and, where our safety advice was ignored and people were putting other’s safety at risk, we took the necessary action to support our district councils with prosecutions.

“And we will not do hesitate to do so again this year.”

The two Maldon District Council-funded PWCs used by Essex Police Marine Unit officers are a valuable asset for policing the area's shallow coastal areas and rivers as they enable the unit's officers to reach isolated areas, inaccessible from the unit’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat, or rhib, Sentinel.

Their versatility means officers use them for all types of marine policing activity. As well as tackling water-based anti-social behaviour, they use them to search for missing people along the shoreline, for general patrolling and for engaging with marine communities.

One major benefit of the PWCs is their ability to break down barriers between the police and the public, particularly other PWC riders. And, with their distinctive Essex Police livery, they are proving to be a significant attraction at community engagement events.

Officers make the most of this interest which they use to start conversations about crime prevention and criminal activity, which they know is under-reported by the marine and river communities whether they use the water for leisure or for work.

They understand how the theft of a boat or equipment can affect livelihoods and businesses and they understand that there are crimes which are unique to the marine and river communities. Officers use this engagement to make people aware of specific crime prevention measures they can take to protect themselves, their property and their business and use the information they provide to help the force to effectively target its resources and operational activity.

The unit

The majority of the team’s work focuses on anyone who uses the water along Essex’s coast and rivers.

This doesn’t only mean boat-owners but paddle-boarders, canoeists and kayakers, kite-surfers and people using personal watercraft just anyone who uses the water for leisure.

Officers investigate and help to prevent crimes which matter to marine communities, such as the theft of boats and marine equipment, and they provide specialist crime prevention advice.

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