Northern Ireland

Kayak rescue calls were 'calculated hoax'

A lifeboat at Donaghadee harbour Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Lifeboats were launched from Donaghadee and Bangor after an alarm was raised

An air and sea rescue operation off the County Down coast that was triggered by "utterly calculated" hoax radio calls will have cost thousands of pounds.

A Coastguard helicopter from Scotland and two lifeboats began searching for a kayaker in distress after a mayday call at about 16:00 BST on Sunday.

A second, linked hoax call followed, and the search was later halted.

The coastguard's Dawn Petrie said those who made the calls had been listening to communications between rescue teams.

It had been a "very elaborate and deliberate hoax", she said, adding that false incidents to which the coastguard responds were "not always on this scale".

"This particular one was unusual in the amount of resources, people's time and expense that it caused," she said.

'False callers punished'

The hoax is the 10th that the coastguard in Northern Ireland has received this year.

Searches after an initial message on VHF marine band radio - purportedly from a man in trouble kayaking near the Copeland islands, close to Donaghadee - revealed nothing.

Rescuers then responded to a second call - from a woman claiming she was on a yacht and had found an upturned kayak - but neither vessel was found.

Image copyright RNLI
Image caption RNLI crews searched for the kayaker for two hours

The helicopter, which had been dispatched from its base in Prestwick, searched the area for 50 minutes.

"It would appear that he was listening to what was going on, reacting to what we were doing on and carrying it on as far as he could," said Ms Petrie.

The coastguard said it would always carry out a search if it believed someone was in danger, but people making false or misleading calls would be punished "under the full force of the law".

'Calls seemed strange'

John Ashwood, a Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) coxswain who was involved in the search, said he believed the hoaxers had been watching the rescue operation develop on mobile phone apps that track the location of boats and aircraft.

"As the incident progressed you could see a pattern emerging - we had searched an area, then the yacht 'appeared', giving the call to say they were in a position," he said.

"We went back to that position, maybe a quarter of a mile from where we last searched - there were no vessels around and visibility was probably about 10 miles.

"Previous hoax calls have generally been from somebody using a landline or a mobile phone calling in - this one seemed strange.

"It gave you the impression that the people were watching and sending us here, there and everywhere."

Hoaxers can put lives in danger by diverting rescuers away from genuine emergencies, Mr Ashwood added, and false incidents can cost services significant amounts of money.

"It's disappointing that people feel they have to do that, especially when there could be an incident further down the coast and ourselves and the helicopter might be needed.

"The RNLI is a charity and is fully supported by the generosity of the public - the last thing we want to be doing is burning diesel for no reason."

More on this story