Pleasure boat at centre of police investigation into Bournemouth beach tragedy

The Dorset Belle has been impounded by police - Russell Sach
The Dorset Belle has been impounded by police - Russell Sach

A restored pleasure cruiser is at the centre of a criminal investigation into a tragedy involving the deaths of two children on Bournemouth beach, it has been revealed.

The Dorset Belle has been impounded by police after a man in his 40s, described as being “on the water” at the time, was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.

A 12-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy were pulled from the sea with “critical injuries” on Wednesday, before being taken to hospital where they were pronounced dead.

A further eight people were treated by paramedics after the incident.

The force confirmed that the arrested man, who was released on Thursday night under investigation, was not known to the victims.

RNLI lifeguards dashed into the sea on Wednesday after 10 people found themselves at risk of being swept away by a sudden and strong undercurrent.

However, exactly what caused one of the worst British seaside incidents in recent history is not clear.

A relative of the young girl who died paid tribute, saying: “She was the best cousin in the world and was like my sister.

“You showed me what love is, you’re my sister, always remember that you will go to heaven.”

The Dorset Belle left Bournemouth Pier at 4pm on Wednesday, according to online tracker MarineTraffic - just seven minutes before the first call to the emergency services was made to report an incident in the sea.

Dorset Police said there was no physical contact between any vessel and swimmers when the tragedy happened. It did not rule out the possibility of a boat being involved in some form.

There was speculation locally that the children may have been overwhelmed by a wave from a vessel after being swept out to sea by a tide or riptide in the water.

It was also suggested that the incident may have happened when passengers were boarding or disembarking the vessel at the pier.

The area around the pier is subject to a speed limit, with vessels restricted to speeds of six knots in a zone 200m off the beach marked out with yellow buoys.

However, commercial pleasure boats with a licence are allowed to go in and out of the pier at their scheduled times to offload and board passengers, with a shipping lane in and out of it, according to the council website.

On Thursday, the Dorset Belle remained under police guard at Cobbs Quay, in Poole Harbour.

Police did not respond to a request regarding the reason behind the impounding of the pleasure boat, which is able to accommodate up to 80 passengers.

A police source said the boat was currently under a cordon and no one was “allowed on it or to touch it”.

On the day of the deaths, the Dorset Belle made numerous circuits of Bournemouth Pier.

It arrived at the marina in Poole at 6.30pm, where it was impounded.

At around 3pm on Thursday, a lone officer was seen guarding the vessel before being joined by a number of other officers in two further patrol cars.

Later that afternoon, three officers walked onto the boat and were seen searching on board.

Rachel Farrell, the assistant chief constable of Dorset Police, said during a press conference on Thursday that early investigations indicated that there was “no physical contact between a vessel and any of the swimmers at the time of the incident”.

She added that “there is also no suggestion of people jumping from the pier or jet skis being involved”.

Ms Farrell confirmed that the two victims were from separate families, adding: “We are truly devastated that two young people have lost their lives.

“None of the [other] eight people had serious injuries; they were treated at the scene.

“It is different people from different families which were not known to each other enjoying the water. They were not related.”

The 12-year-old girl is believed to be from the Buckinghamshire area and was visiting Bournemouth at the time. The 17-year-old boy is from Southampton.

Paying tribute to the girl on social media, her friends described her as “missed and loved by so many people”.

The beach was crowded on Wednesday afternoon, with hundreds of families enjoying 23C (73.4F) sun during the May half-term holiday.

An 18-year-old swimmer is believed to have seen the 12-year-old girl floating in the sea and helped bring her to the beach, where she was given CPR.

The body of the 17-year-old boy was then spotted washed up close to the shoreline, where lifeguards and an ambulance crew tried to save him, before they were both airlifted to hospital.

Emergency services rushed to the scene on Wednesday - MaxWillcock/BNPS
Emergency services rushed to the scene on Wednesday - MaxWillcock/BNPS

Dr Rob Rosa, 48, was walking on the promenade when he saw the girl being brought to the beach.

He praised the “magnificent” young lifeguards who tried to save her life.

Speaking to The Telegraph, the father of two said: “These were young kids in their early twenties who have never seen anything  like this and they were exceptional.”

“They cleared the beach, set a perimeter and shielded the bodies. They could have frozen and they didn’t.

“There were hordes of people running down with their cameras trying to take photographs.

“They had to marshall that because the instinctive reaction of a lot of people was to rush forward with their cameras and the lifeguards had to push them away and shield the kids.”

The former GP and chief medical officer, who also ran to assist the rescue effort, said that the lifeguards were forced to hold back crowds of people trying to take pictures on their phones.

On Thursday, mourners left flowers on the beach close to the pier as holidaymakers recalled the horrific events.

Eeman Qamar, 33, from Southampton, was sitting on the beach with her 59-year-old mother and three-month-old baby throughout the incident.

She said: “Within seconds it just went from a normal fun day out at the beach to a very serious situation – tense, grave and sombre.”

Rob Creech, the father of the 18-year-old swimmer who came to the dying girl’s aid, said: “My son was on the other side of the pier swimming with a few friends.

“All of a sudden there were a lot of people on the pier shouting and screaming that there was somebody in the water.

“He scooped her up to swim to shore ... the emergency services took it from there.”

Nicola Holton, 43, and Stuart Clark, 42, were on the beach with their two children when lifeguards first began shouting “mayday, mayday”.

Miss Holton said: “It was like a scene from a horror film.

“A lifeguard ran into the water with a surfboard … There was an announcement to get out of the water and then the lifeguards started bringing people back to shore.”

The beach was packed with families at the time - BNPS
The beach was packed with families at the time - BNPS

Conor Burns, the MP for Bournemouth West, said the tragedy was a “salutary lesson that our beaches and ocean can give much pleasure but danger is ever present”.

Mr Burns added: “It would seem not a far reach to draw a conclusion that while the vessel may not have physically touched the young people, perhaps it created the conditions which made being in the water more dangerous.”

Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative MP for Bournemouth East, urged police to release more details about the tragedy to reassure the thousands of tourists who visit the Dorset resort’s beaches.

He said: “This is a tragic incident and the police clearly have to do their investigation and that is understood.

“But I would encourage them to give more clarity as to the general details of this tragedy to help assure beachgoers that this occurrence is unlikely to happen again.”

Vikki Slade, leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, said the authority is working with the emergency services and will be assessing safety in the water near the pier.

“There are specific rules relating to the buoys in the water but there is no evidence that any of these rules have been breached.”

She added that additional staff would be available over the weekend to reassure holidaymakers.

A spokesman for the council later added: “The speed limit in this area is restricted to six knots (5mph) for those using powered water vehicles.

“BCP Council will take legal action against anyone exceeding the speed limit.

“In this designated area, powered water vehicles cannot annoy or endanger other beach users or run ashore or launch from the beach. These vessels must also be fitted with engine silencers.”

The investigation is being led by Dorset Police alongside the Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.