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Coastguard, plods swoop on fake Facebook yachtmaster

Eight month manhunt, DNA sampling for internet pirate

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A 29-year-old yachtswoman used an image of a sailing qualification found on Facebook to charter a yacht last summer, according to the UK government.

No harm was done and she paid the charter company in full but, nonetheless, crack Coastguard operatives and nautical plods swung into action. A mere eight months later the maritime malefactor had been nabbed, though a merciful government spared her any jail time. Needless to say, however, her full biometrics have now been added to government databases.

According to the government:

The woman hired a yacht in the summer of 2007 from a South coast charter firm whose conditions of hire were that the charterer should provide a valid MCA/RYA Yachtmaster certificate. The woman in question submitted a photocopy... later found to be a forgery. The matter was reported to the Enforcement unit of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

The Marine Unit of Dorset Police carried out a full investigation... and on the 22nd February the woman attended Bournemouth Police Station. The decision was made to release the offender with a caution... she was of previous good character, the yacht was returned undamaged and the charter was paid in full... the individual now has her DNA, fingerprints and photograph on file. If she should come to the notice of the Police... she will go to court.

For those not up on the yachting scene, the Yachtmaster qualification is one of the higher yachting qualifications endorsed by the UK government, requiring a lot of time and expense to obtain. It includes various skills which some might argue are not strictly essential to safe handling of a yacht day-to-day. (Many charter firms run profitable RYA training courses.)

However, neither Yachtmaster nor any of the lesser, more reasonable tickets are a legal requirement. Anyone can take a yacht to sea under UK law - provided they have the owner's permission.

Every year around the UK large numbers of yachts, a smaller proportion of fishing vessels and even a certain number of big, heavily certified ships go to sea and do wildly stupid or dangerous things. There are near misses, collisions, groundings, and wrecks. People get lost overboard, drowned, injured. Rescue personnel both pro and volunteer have to risk their lives, frequently unnecessarily. All the while, boats and things on boats get stolen with almost unfettered rapacity.

Most of the people responsible for all this never suffer any significant consequences.

Against this background the idea that it makes sense to have a "full" MCA and police investigation, eight months after the fact, to hunt down, caution, and DNA sample a young woman who had done nothing dangerous and stolen not a single penny seems bizarre to say the least. But the MCA seems to be proud of its efforts - enough, at least, to issue a press release.

Indeed, the coasties actually seem to think they've struck a blow against some kind of fictional plague of fake Yachtmasters. Captain Andrew Phillips of MCA enforcement said:

"Seafarers should never publish copies of their certification on the internet. If you have already done so then you are strongly advised to remove them immediately. Having the document on the internet allows them to be copied, and then abused."

So the appearance of a genuine Yachtmaster certificate is to be a secret. Which might make it a bit hard for (say) the admin staff of a charter firm to identify a real one, not being initiates of the guild. In the unlikely event that such a silly secret could ever actually be kept. ®

The writer is a former professional seafarer, having stood bridge watches for eight years and served as navigating officer for two of those. He was also for some of those years an RYA-qualified sailing instructor.

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