Rory Church’s much anticipated visit to his beloved boat doesn’t go quite as planned when he discovers evidence of a squatter onboard
How would you deal with a squatter onboard? Rory Church shares his story
Buckler’s Hard on the Beaulieu River was to be our destination and my wife and I were looking forward to taking our Channel Islands 22 motorboat for a visit.
I’d checked the weather for the coming week and worked over the weekend ensuring we could keep Tuesday free, thus taking advantage of quieter visitor pontoons and attractions.
Our boat, Kelpie, is kept at Town Quay Marina in Southampton. We’d not been out for a fortnight so were very cheerful swaying along the pontoons in the morning sun with a couple of bags of provisions.
Sadly, this was the best point of the day and things were about to hit a new low…
Our troubles started when my wife unzipped the bimini that fully encloses our cockpit. She turned to me and said “smells funny.”
My thoughts immediately turned to gas, diesel, sulphurous battery fumes and other marine dangers but then she said “aftershave or something.”
Having flicked up the entrance to the bimini she then turned to me and said “Someone’s been sleeping on our boat!”
I joined her at the entrance and indeed, someone had been sleeping on the boat.
Our bedding had been dragged up from the small cabin, laid out on the aft seat and had clearly been used.
I stepped on board to find clothes left lying on the floor, other clothes piled neatly on a seat, headphones laid out ready for use on the bedding, a bag of tobacco and cigarette papers and a couple of unused SIM cards.
A quick look in the small cabin confirmed ‘Goldilocks’ was no longer home, but was likely to return.
It gets worse….an unsanitary squatter
Leaving things intact I visited the marina office and was followed back by two of the team, who’d never heard of such a thing.
I showed the team our visitor’s effects and confirmed that nothing seemed to be stolen.
It was while I was checking the cabin with one of the team that I opened the door to our very small heads.
I immediately took a step back in horror, and slammed the door shut with an “Oh God!” thrown in.
I slowly opened the door to take another look and confirm my worst fears.
Our formerly pristine, pump action sea toilet was filled to the brim with the unspeakable, charmingly topped off with a layer of kitchen roll, I won’t describe the state of the underside of the lid which was upright, suffice to say it had changed colour.
No wonder our squatter had left the cabin for a berth on the stern seat, although this individual was clearly no Goldilocks – rather an animal, a Poo bear perhaps.
The marina staff provided some large bin bags for our visitor’s effects and tokens for the washing machines/dryers with which to wash the bedding and blankets.
Sadly, the CCTV did not cover our boat so we could not identify the individual involved.
So, rather than heading out to Buckler’s Hard on a perfect sunny day we set about sanitising the boat.
We would never use the sea toilet in a marina and I was not about to flood the area with someone else’s sewage.
Armed with Marigold gloves, anti-bacterial wipes and a brand new kitchen roll I emptied the toilet.
Covid masks have more than one use I discovered, and I only gagged three times during the process.
It turned out that he only used the toilet for number twos, he was quite happy lifting the bimini canvas and peeing down the side of the boat on the gunwales, evidenced by the discolouration and smell… sadly it had not rained for a few days!
We also discovered during our cleaning that the medical kit had been broken into, there were some used bandages left lying around which we carefully bagged and binned.
The clean up took most of the day, although the strong tobacco smell would linger on for over a week.
In the meantime, we’d contacted the police via their online reporting service.
There was no immediate danger so we used the reporting portal and laid out the facts pointing out that there was plenty of evidence gathered at the scene and that ‘Goldilocks’ was likely to come back.
As there was no damage (other than a clogged toilet) and the boat was not ‘residential’ sadly no investigation would be undertaken, even though the individual was likely to return.
On the bright side I did receive plenty of texts throughout the day from victim support listing all the various counselling options available.
The squatter returns
So it was that at 1900, my wife and I, along with my son who is a handy 6ft 5in and our two lurchers were on stakeout on the marina decking, each armed with a portion of fish and chips.
As it happens the marina staff are off duty from 1900 and sure enough at 1910 I noticed someone failing in their attempt to enter the toilets – the codes had been changed earlier in the day.
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The man was dressed reasonably smartly, dark trousers, blue polo, with a rucksack and made his way onto the pontoons, nodding at another yachtsman coming up the ramp.
My wife later described him as ‘beige’. He did nothing to stand out, was quiet, and looked for all the world like he belonged on the marina.
My curiosity being raised by his failure with the codes (he must have followed someone through the main entrance), I kept an eye on his progress.
He walked along the main access pontoon, passing each turn, until he arrived at the final pontoon leading to our boat.
Sure enough he made his way to Kelpie, and walked along the finger pontoon to our boat and looked in through the bimini, at which point he began to look confused.
“Look after the dogs please,” I yelled at two Norwegian sailors using the barbecue (we’d forewarned them that we were on stakeout) and then like an overweight, middle class version of The Sweeny we rushed down the gangway.
Our target had already been spooked by a young berth holder jogging down to his boat, in the process running straight past our man.
He’d obviously expected the worst as he eyed the jogger uneasily, when he turned round though, he found himself staring eye to chest with my son.
I joined the party, followed by my wife who had started filming the whole encounter on her phone and used the immortal lines at the start “He’s rumbled that he’s been rumbled!”
He told us that he (Rob A) had been visiting his friend (John A) who had been staying on Kelpie with the owner’s permission – we pointed out the flaw in that argument!
During the conversation John A became Rob A’s cousin and later his brother so his story was open to interpretation.
We did, however, get phone numbers and addresses which were passed to the police – along with an offer to share the video.
The police did not want it and said they could not investigate as even though Rob A returned to the boat there was no evidence to say he had been the original perpetrator (I pointed out there was plenty of DNA evidence if required!)
In the end we marched the squatter off the premises and gave the marina staff access to the video for future reference.
The takeaway from this is that most marinas are probably inherently insecure, and I’d recommend putting a movement activated wifi camera on board for peace of mind.
Our intruder had been on the boat for several days, and by keeping a low profile had not been challenged or even really noticed by staff or other boat owners.
As for justice… perhaps we need to reinstall the old pirate’s cage and suspend miscreants alongside Southampton docks for a few days as a warning.
We need something to replace the old pier after all!
On a happier note we worked the weekend again and the following Tuesday had a fantastic visit to the Beaulieu River, one week late but with the cleanest toilet on the South Coast.
In text message correspondence with Rory Church in June 2022 when the incident was reported, a Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Constabulary spokesperson requested confirmation that it was a non residential boat and responded: “Unfortunately we still are unable to investigate this offence as although the male returned to your boat, we still do not have any evidence that it was him who committed the damage in the first place. We are sorry for this.”
Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Constabulary was unable to find any record of this incident when contacted by PBO in January 2023.
A spokesperson said: “Where we have evidence to investigate break-ins on boats we will do so, so please report suspicious activity to us via 101.
“We would encourage all boat owners to make sure they are checking their boats at least once a week, taking all valuables home with them and fitting audible alarms.
Invest in security cameras for your boat
Associated British Ports (ABP) responds: ‘We were sorry to hear of the incident that occurred with our berthholder’s boat Kelpie during last summer and have communicated with the berthholder in this regard.
‘As a marina we do have access control measures in place and we do make use of CCTV surveillance systems to assist with security on site. However, it should be remembered that it is not a high security environment and it is possible for unauthorised persons to gain access to the marina by tailgating, for example. This type of incident is extremely rare and we regularly review our access control systems to prevent unwanted persons from gaining access, such as regularly changing access codes and challenging unknown persons in the marina.
‘Our berth holders often have visitors/contractors to their boats and the team do expect to see some unknown faces around from time to time, but in general this is well controlled. Our marina office is not open during the night from 7pm to 7am and we do not have personnel on site during these times and this appears to be the times that the perpetrator took advantage of to access the boat. We do carry out regular daily rounds within the marina and we would spot any unusual activity, but this individual obviously made himself scarce during the day.
‘We have recently had our entire CCTV system upgraded and we do change access codes regularly so these measures should help to prevent this type of incident occurring in the future.
‘If we can offer one piece of advice to berth holders it would be to install a motion-activated camera on the boat which will warn them as soon as anybody comes aboard. These cameras are quite cost effective and the marina has good wifi coverage so it is quite straightforward to install this type of equipment.
‘If a berth holder wants to carry out an insurance claim then it would probably be a requirement of the insurance company that the incident is reported to the police.’
Tony Pauffley, yacht broking manager for Gallagher, one of the world’s largest insurance brokerage, risk management and consulting firms, said: “Trying to keep unwanted people off your boat is unfortunately not a new problem for owners. Whether it’s someone rough sleeping, like in this case, or stealing valuable items from the vessel. The risk can be heightened depending on the boat’s location and whether or not the boatyard has the correct security measures in place.
“As an insurer we take this risk into account when evaluating coverage needed and we would encourage owners and boatyard operator to take security measures into account.
“I often explain to owners that the time when a vessel is not being used is the time when the vessel is at the most risk. As an insurance broker, we require the owner to take steps to keep their vessel safe and secure. Keeping the insurer informed of the details of the risk, (location, use and any changes) will help mitigate loss. If the worst happens, get in contact with your insurance broker as soon as possible.”
Responsibilities of all parties:
Boatyards and marinas
- To provide a safe and secure location to store the vessel ashore and/or afloat
- Limit access to the marina and storage areas
- Provide security in the form of staff and video security when appropriate
- Choose a good boat yard/marina
- Keep items secure and out of sight
- Keep valuable items to a minimum
- Get to know the dock masters
- Get to know the owners adjacent to your vessel and keep an eye on each others’ boats
- Let the yard know if a contractor is working on your vessel
- Use approved contractors
- Visit your vessel regularly and keep it looking loved
- Embrace the latest technology
- Alarms that require the yard to investigate will normally be ignored due to the unreliability of them
- If you live away from your vessel and can’t always attend to the boat’s needs it’s a good idea to contract a local representative to look after your vessel
“To totally eradicate the risk of damage and unwanted attention is probably not possible but planning ahead and taking steps to minimise the risk will go a long way,” Tony adds: “Having run a busy boatyard and worked in and around boats for 40 years I know it’s not easy to keep owners vessels safe and secure, but the combination of owners and yard operators working together is the best way forward.”
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