WATCHET was divided this week after boat-owners met the marina operator. By Thursday, 160 boat-owners and residents had signed an online petition urging the district council to terminate the marina lease if conditions did not improve.

There were critical posts on social media, but others urged protesters to wait until the release of a progress report from the marina operator in a month’s time before taking any drastic action.

The meeting on Monday was arranged by Marine Group director Chris Odling-Smee after some boat-owners had threatened to withhold mooring fees if delays in dealing with the harbour’s serious mud problem continued.

The meeting ended with a pledge that retained water would be restored to the marina by April but local businessman Chris Moiser, who organised the petition, cast doubt on the claim.

He told the Free Press: “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. At present, boat owners are finding their boats resting on the mud for many hours a day and boat movements are possible only one or two hours around high tide.

"A dredger belonging to the company, who currently are lease-holders, has sat in the harbour non-operational for over a month.”

Referring to claims made at the meeting by Mr Odling-Smee that three dredgers would be “working day and night to get on top of the situation”, former boat owner Damian Selim said: “Sadly it’s the same empty promises all over again. A major factor in the dredging stopping was the lack of maintenance on the dredger.

"I seem to remember them making similar promises back in 2021 when they took over, stating that the marina would be fully floating by the summer of 2021. Their promises come across as impressive but the facts speak for themselves.”

Mr Moiser said the petition was asking Somerset West and Taunton council to immediately start enforcement proceedings to compel the leaseholder to restore the functionality of the harbour, and to terminate the lease if this doesn’t happen.

He also claimed: “The incontrovertible facts are that all three dredgers, and all marinas, are heavily mortgaged, and a number of property companies based at Cardiff are in various stages of receivership/administration, mostly in 2022.

“The fact that the Marine Group have a good relationship with the council is not a credit reference. I do wish them luck, and sincerely hope that it all does work for Watchet’s sake, but with the news reports from two other marinas - Burry Port and Aberystwyth - and the Companies House paperwork it really does look to still be a very risky future.”

Supporting the Marine Group plans, Watchet resident Sam Westmacott said online that Mr Odling-Smee had promised 1.5 metres of retained water in the marina by April. This would be achieved by using a large dredger to clear compacted mud and two smaller machines for maintenance. The major channels would be cleared first.

Ms Westmacott said that the Marine Group had a good relationship with the district council and were re-negotiating the lease so that it was fit for purpose. New pontoons would also be provided. Ms Westmacott added: “It is all looking good. I believe Mr Odling-Smee wants Watchet to survive and if he works toward success I’m right behind him. In one month he will come back and then we will know what he has achieved and can make judgments about our potential future.”

About 30 people attended the meeting on Monday in The Esplanade Club, including local residents and town and district councillors. Mr Odling-Smee said he would not stand for ‘trial by Facebook and social media’ and described many of the comments as ‘abuse’ which was having a major impact on his staff.

He said the effect on his team of the social media tirade was a ‘red line’ issue and he was personally following up with some individuals who had posted online. Mr Odling-Smee said just like a restaurant would not tolerate abusive diners, so his Marine Group would not accept customers who did not pay or who posted abuse.

“Ranting and saying things on Facebook which we cannot respond to as a corporation is not on,” he said. “I am happy to be accountable to anybody but what we will not do is tolerate abuse on Facebook.”

He said ‘early bird’ emails were sent on Monday to boat owners offering a five per discount on fees which were paid by the end of the month. However, if anybody had not received the email, it probably meant ‘we need to have a conversation’.

Mr Odling-Smee said marina fees reflected the current state of the harbour and would only rise in line with inflation this year, and even after promised improvements had been delivered there would not be ‘extortionate’ increases.

However, he said suggestions that fees should be reduced were not practical because it would make the marina less attractive for investment.

Mr Odling-Smee apologised that work which should have been completed by late 2021 had still not been carried out. He said: “I am contrite. I am frustrated. It has taken us longer to get to the point where an amount of mud has been taken out, but this will be resolved by April. Our commitment to delivering a fully-watered harbour for Watchet as soon as possible remains. Our objective is that it is all watered by the beginning of April.”

Mr Odling-Smee said the issue was that although the company had three dredgers, they had been working in Scotland, East Anglia and elsewhere and not enough had been done in Watchet.

However, he said dredging which had taken place in Watchet Marina had been successful in reducing mud levels by up to 1.5 metres and showed that it worked, it was just that it needed to be carried out more often.

He said a dredging programme would be resolved within a week and a schedule published showing which vessels would be working and when, and fuel would also be available in seven days’ time.