BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France — There is disquiet along the cold, foggy quays of this major French fishing port facing Britain.
Captain after captain, returning to Boulogne-sur-Mer in squat fishing boats with the day’s haul of crab and sole, has the same story: Their boats are being broken into.
The suspected culprits, according to the fishermen and local officials? Smugglers, and their migrant clients, who are intent on reaching Britain and are looking for vessels to cross the forbidding waters of the English Channel. A few of the stolen boats have even been taken to sea.
Since the start of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, the English Channel has largely been seen as an unbreachable barrier, its shifting currents and volatile weather making any attempt to cross too dangerous.
But officials in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France’s largest fishing port, reported a surge of these migrant crossings in the last three months of 2018, whether in a stolen fishing boat or, far more frequently, in small inflatable craft that set off in the dark from the miles of beaches lining the French coast.
“This is something completely new for us,” said Marc Bonnafous, who oversees the government’s search and rescue operation in the channel waters from the lighthouse high above the sea here at Cap Gris-Nez, up the coast from Boulogne. “And it has absolutely exploded.”
Last year, around 500 migrants — 10 times as many as in 2017 — attempted the voyage across the channel, a trip of about 20 miles at its narrowest point. More than half made it across.
The relatively small numbers notwithstanding, the crossings have set off large concerns in Britain, with headlines and anti-immigration politicians calling it a crisis. This month, the French interior minister, after talks with his British equivalent, announced that patrols would be increased at the port to try to stop any crossing attempts.
Along the quays in Boulogne, the taciturn fishermen expressed surprise at the sudden intrusion of this new competitor for the sea.
“This boat is my business. It’s my only enterprise,” said Jean-Marie Baheu, as he glumly tried to fix a lock damaged in a break-in on his boxy, 40-foot fishing boat, the Murex. Someone had tried to smash into the captain’s cabin several nights before, damaging the door.
“We just don’t know what to do about this,” Mr. Baheu said, fiddling with a screwdriver.
The Quai Gambetta, onto which deck hands from the Murex were hoisting crates of freshly caught crab as the captain worked on his repairs, gives out directly on to the sea and is the preferred docking spot for the port’s skippers. From here, they can unload their catch directly to the fish stalls run by relatives that line the waterfront.
But the quay is readily accessible from the town, and its exposure makes the boats vulnerable. Twelve attempted break-ins have been logged in recent weeks, said Stéphane Pinto, the vice president of the regional fisherman’s committee.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Valerie Arnout, who was at her stand on the quay selling sole and skate caught by her brother that morning. “It’s really very disturbing.”
The town, the largest fish-processing center in Europe, depends on its fleet for survival, so any threat to the boats is taken seriously. Some of the fishermen are vowing to sit up all night in their boats, cradling their guns.
“It’s the worry above all,” Ms. Arnout said. “We’re all very concerned about it around here.”
As other routes to Britain are blocked — the tunnel at Calais is sealed up tight and French officials have taken a tough line on the camps that once flourished at its edges, regularly dispersing them — the frigid, treacherous waters of the channel beckon to the desperate migrants.
Most of those attempting the crossing by boat are Iranians, according to officials, in part because they have the means to pay the hefty fees demanded. In one recent case, the migrants paid their smuggler 100,000 euros, around $115,000, officials said.
The English Channel is one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world, with giant container ships and ferries whose wake could easily tip over the frail, inflatable skiffs typically used by the migrants — which is what makes the much more seaworthy fishing boats so attractive.
“The risks are extremely high,” Mr. Bonnafous said.
The currents are strong and constant, he added, and the water so cold that “you would survive for less than an hour.”
In a marine police photograph of a rescue off Calais on Dec. 27, one man is clad in a T-shirt. Five of the 11 rescued had hypothermia.
So far, there have been no reported deaths from the crossings, but Mr. Bonnafous thinks it is only a matter of time. And as news of the successful crossings reaches more migrants, the number of attempts is likely to rise, increasing the odds of fatalities. There were 78 crossings and attempts last year, with the number spiking in November and December.
From the lighthouse where Mr. Bonnafous works, the white cliffs of Dover, England, are visible in the distance. His colleagues are bent over radar screens tracking the crossings.
A boat taking what Mr. Bonnafous calls an “erratic” course will trigger an alarm among the rescuers, although it is often the migrants themselves who call the emergency number and ask to be rescued.
The distress calls often come in the early morning hours, leaving the rescue teams the nightmare task of finding the small boats in the dark, “like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Mr. Bonnafous said.
While the recent effort to steal Mr. Baheu’s boat failed, in a few cases the thieves have succeeded.
In November, 17 Iranians made off with the Epervier, taking it from the docks of Boulogne and sailing to Dover, where they were arrested.
And on a dark night just before Christmas, 14 migrants, including several children, made it seven miles off the coast on a boat stolen from the inner harbor at Boulogne, the St. Catherine, before the motor gave out. The thieves had forgotten to open the cooling valves.
“They completely fried the motor,” said Quentin Gillon, who was sorting a tangled mass of ropes on the deck of the Saint Catherine, his cousin’s boat. “And then the boat got stuck.”
On New Year’s Eve, it was the turn of the Caprice des Temps: The police, making the rounds on the quay, arrested 17 people, including a mother and two children, before the boat was able to depart.
On Christmas Day, the dashboard of the Don Lubi, the boat belonging to Mr. Pinto, the regional fishing official, was ripped out. The thieves were trying to connect wires underneath to start the engine. They failed, but ruined the motor in the process. That same day, around 40 migrants made it across the Channel.
Mr. Pinto said he was not unsympathetic to the plight of the migrants, but he was concerned both for their safety and his livelihood.
“These nonprofits that are supposed to be helping the migrants, they should come down here on the quays and warn them not to risk their lives,” he said.