A GANG of bungling people traffickers behind a hare-brained scheme to bring migrants across the English Channel on jet skis headed to Southampton when they realised they needed a bigger boat for their ill-fated racket.

Following an Old Bailey trial, six Kent-based transporters and their Albanian “travel agents” were convicted of people-smuggling.

The court heard migrant men, women and children, were charged up to £6,000 each to cross the Channel.

The criminals had little boating experience or knowledge of the danger to which they were exposing their clients.

At least 18 people were transported from near Calais to Dymchurch in dangerously overcrowded inflatables designed for six.

When the rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RIBs) ran out of fuel and had to be rescued, the gang turned to a three-person jet ski.

Daily Echo:

Had they not been stopped by a National Crime Agency-led surveillance operation, they would have been the first to have tried to run migrants across the world’s busiest shipping route on jet skis.

They are believed to have carried out one successful trip in RIB called Rebel, found abandoned on the beach at Dymchurch with children’s lifejackets on board on May 11, 2016.

The professed owner, Wayne Bath, told border force officials he had been out “night fishing”.

On May 28, the gang tried out the newly-acquired RIB White Scanner, under the watch of NCA agents.

They picked up 18 migrants from France – including two aged 16 and 17 and a woman. On the return journey, they ran out of fuel and the migrants were forced to start baling out.

The terrified group sent desperate text messages, one saying: “We are in England, tell police, we are drowning.”

The Coastguard helicopter and RNLI launched a rescue operation and found the inflatable in which one woman was suffering from hypothermia.

The Old Bailey heard that the Antares had tried to rescue its sister boat but was later found abandoned out to sea.

A Mitsubishi Shogun used to tow it had been abandoned and set on fire.

In July 2016, the White Scanner’s two-man crew of Mark Stribling, 35, from Farningham, Kent, and Robert Stilwell, 33, from Dartford, Kent, were jailed.

Undeterred, the gang bought a larger boat from Southampton – known as “The Boat With No Name”.

Daily Echo:

NCA operatives planted a bug on the boat to listen in as the gang plotted their next migrant run.

On July 25, Albert Letchford took out the Boat With No Name but ran into rough sea and turned back.

On August 13, the NCA secretly filmed a meeting of the Kent gang meeting their Albanian partners in a pub car park.

They went together to buy a jet ski with a view to using it to transport migrants from France to Britain.

The NCA moved in to arrest them fearing the jetski would be brought into use for people smuggling.

The ringleaders were 40-stone Leonard Powell, from Dartford, and his son Alfie, 39, of no fixed address.

Another son, George Powell, had already admitted his part in the conspiracy.

Following a trial, Leonard and Alfie Powell were found guilty of conspiring to breach immigration law along with Wayne Bath, 38, of Sheerness; Sabah Dulaj, 23, of no fixed address; Albert Letchford, 42, of Dartford; and Arthur Nutaj, 39, of north London.

Alan Viles, 28, of Folkestone and Francis Wade, 59, of Rochester denied being part of the plot and were found not guilty after a jury deliberated for 29 hours

NCA senior investigator Mark McCormack said the gang was dangerously incompetent.

He said: “We have people controlling vessels with no maritime experience, no sailing experience, who have completed very rudimentary one or two-day courses, trying to cross this busy shipping channel at night in a small vessel not utilising lights or radar.

“So it increases the risk of migrants coming over and it puts their lives at real risk, which is why we at the NCA were trying to stop those people.

“When the Boat With No Name crossed the English Channel, a number of times it crossed the traffic, and was under the bow of a number of container ships.”