CUSTOMS officers have seized more than £120,000 worth of booze and cigarettes from an offshore off-licence selling duty free goods off the Hartlepool coast.
It took them several hours to off-load the thousands of cigarettes and boxes of spirits and tobacco from the Rich Harvest vessel, after it came into Hartlepool Marina for repairs at the weekend.
The Hartlepool Mail revealed last week how owner Phil Berriman had set up business selling duty free goods in international waters, 13 miles off the coast.
He claimed he was acting well within international law and, in just a few days, a number of people travelled out to sea in order to purchase the cut-price goods - including someone on a jet ski from Redcar.
However, yesterday Customs officers boarded his yacht to take possession of the goods on suspicion that duty needed to be paid.
Mr Berriman, and his skipper Trevor Lyons, who is a university lecturer in maritime law, claimed the seizure was unlawful and said they believed they were being used as an example.
He said that before the boat was brought back to Hartlepool for repairs on Friday, he called Customs and asked if he could bring the vessel and its cargo into port unhindered, provided the goods were declared and secured and that they flew a Q flag, indicating there was cargo on board.
"We were told 'yes that would be fine', but now Customs is denying we were ever given permission," said Mr Berriman.
"We could easily have transferred the goods on to another boat and brought the Rich Harvest in empty.
"We know we are acting within the law and if you have a problem at sea you are allowed to come into any port for repairs unhindered, so long as you declare your cargo.
"I think Customs are just mad that we have found a way to sell our goods at bargain rates. I think we are being used as an example because they don't want other people to start doing this."
Mr Berriman and Mr Lyons are contacting lawyers and plan to take their battle to court.
A Customs spokesman said: "The vessel Rich Harvest was detained by Customs at Hartlepool (on Saturday), along with a quantity of excise goods stored on board. The detained excise goods have been removed by Customs in the belief that they are neither declared nor duty paid. Customs will make additional enquiries before any further action is taken."
Mr Berriman's off-shore off licence sells 200 cigarettes for 15 and a bottle of spirits for 6.