Its ranks include a shotgun-toting former veal exporter, a retired submarine officer and a lawyer specialising in insuring class actions. While the men behind Seaborne Freight might not have expected the level of scrutiny to which they are being subjected after landing a £14m government contract to ensure the flow of food and medical supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit, what started life as another cross-Channel ferry service is suddenly in the spotlight.
First came the revelation that the company had no ships. Next, it emerged terms and conditions on its website appeared to be intended for a food delivery business. Now, after dredging started on Thursday to prepare Ramsgate harbour for the service that Seaborne will run to the Belgian port of Ostend, the role of the self-described “old sea dogs” will be closely watched.
Seaborne’s founder and chief operating officer is a veteran of the ferry industry and was involved in the controversial export of live cattle from the West Sussex port of Shoreham-by-Sea in the 1990s.
Dudley, 64, a well-known figure in the Brighton area, was a director of International Trader’s Ferry, although a listing on Companies House features a different spelling of his name, Dydley. ITF, registered in 1995 in the British Virgin Islands, was formed by cattle farmers with the help of Dudley’s expertise as a “shipping consultant”, according to Companies House. Its plan was to export live calves to the continent to be slaughtered for veal.
The trade was the subject of protests from animal rights campaigners, forcing local police to draft in more than 1,000 extra officers to enable the exports, which were legal, to continue. One protester was killed during clashes with police.
So fraught was that period that Dudley even borrowed a shotgun to ward off protesters – and found himself imprisoned for two months for possessing it after police searched his home. A judge at Hove crown court told him: “This is not the wild west.”
He told the Guardian that he acquired the shotgun after up to 900 protesters had demonstrated outside his house, leading him to fear for his family’s safety. “It [the shotgun] was what you’d call a backstop,” he said. “It was a terrible situation and the police weren’t looking after us. We were left at the mercy of lunatic gangs of animal rights activists.”
He said Seaborne had no plans to carry livestock out of Ramsgate.
Eventually, the police withdrew their provision of security because of the high cost of protecting ITF. The company launched a lawsuit designed to reverse the decision and ensure continued protection at taxpayers’ expense, but was unsuccessful.
As protests at Shoreham continued, ITF moved its export operation to Dover, but eventually fell victim to the BSE outbreak. The crisis brought an end to the export of cows from Britain to the continent from 1996, a ban that was not lifted until 2006.
Dudley, who is believed to live in Dieppe, France, subsequently worked for MyFerryLink, a small cross-Channel service that was owned by Eurotunnel, as its freight and marketing manager.
Speaking to Reuters in December, Dudley said: “For us, the harder the Brexit the better. If Dover and the Channel tunnel are encumbered, our space will go quite quickly.”
The chief executive of Seaborne Freight is listed on the firm’s Companies House page as John Sharp, but told the Guardian he had been known as Ben for most of his life, including by his family.
He spent 10 years as a submarine officer in the Royal Navy before setting up a shipping company that ultimately ran aground. Mercator, a ship chartering company, was forced into liquidation by HM Revenue & Customs in 2014 because it was unable to pay a sizeable tax bill. It was not disclosed how much Mercator owed HMRC, but it left a total of £1.78m in unpaid debts. Sharp said Mercator collapsed after a client in the Middle East failed to pay its bills.
He later set up another ship operating company, Albany Shipping, but he said this business was put to one side after he was asked to get involved with Seaborne Freight.
After details of Seaborne’s contract emerged, Sharp, 61, said he was confident the company would be ready to run a ferry service from Ramsgate to Ostend by the end of March.
Described in the shipping media as a veteran of the ferry industry, he began his career with the marine operations of the French state-owned rail company SNCF and was the chief executive of Seaborne before Sharp joined. According to Companies House, he remains a director of the company and lives in France.
Like Dudley, he used to work for MyFerryLink. The business, which operated two ships, was sold to rival DFDS in 2017 amid a monopoly investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into whether Eurotunnel should be allowed to run cross-Channel ships.
Other directors in the company include Peter Hampton Blackmore, a solicitor, and Brian Raincock, an insurance consultant and a director in Albany Shipping alongside Sharp. Both Raincock and Blackmore work for London-based LML, which funds and insures group litigation.
While Seaborne has borne the brunt of ridicule in the UK over its apparent lack of vessels, it has been reported that a Dutch entrepreneur and insurance broker, Martin Lanting, has been appointed as a ship manager. Funding to buy ships on 80% mortgages has been lined up, according to the TradeWinds journal, which also said investors had been attracted from the UK and Asia.