Beaches were closed along the Sussex coast last night as a massive clean-up operation began to remove thousands of pieces of timber washed ashore over the weekend.

Worthing was hit hardest with 6ft piles of wood stacking up along the shoreline for as far as the eye could see.

The drama began after 2,000 tonnes of timber fell overboard from the deck of the Greek-registered vessel Ice Prince before she sank in rough seas 26 miles off Portland Bill in Dorset on Tuesday.

By Saturday morning beachcombers had descended on the 20ft and 33ft planks strewn across the shingle in Worthing.

Birdwatchers scanning the channel with powerful telescopes warned there was a lot more timber out to sea.

They had seen huge bundles of wood, lashed together, floating about a mile offshore.

Hundreds of pieces littered Worthing beach, with reports of deposits in Littlehampton and Selsey.

Colin Griffiths, Solent Coastguard watch manager, said the first report of people wading into the water at Selsey Bill had come in at 8.30am on Saturday.

On Saturday an urgent plea was issued to mariners, windsurfers, surfers and canoeists by council officials who were concerned that the floating wood, which was damaged and had become spear-like, could cause a serious injury or an accident.

As darkness fell, police and coastguards from all over Sussex began to patrol the seafront road and promenade to deter pillagers. They were determined to stop a repeat of the scenes that followed the loss of the Napoli off the West Country, when looters escaped with BMW motorbikes, kegs of booze and people's personal possessions.

One man, in a fully laden white van, was caught in a layby near Brooklands service station in Brighton Road, East Worthing, and ordered to unload scores of planks back on to the beach.

In West Worthing, near George V Avenue, the driver of a red Mazda hatchback, with lengths of wood sticking out of the boot, was told to do the same.

Yet people were still willing to take the risk - despite being waterlogged, the timber was perfect fencing and garden decking material.

West Sussex County Council held an emergency meeting in Chichester on Friday to co-ordinate plans.

There were concerns that the sea could throw the timber against shingle banks and groynes, causing flood defence damage.

Chichester, Littlehampton and Shoreham harbours issued notices to mariners that the floating wood could be a hazard to vessels.

Pagham Harbour, near Bognor, monitored the area for any environmental consequences - particularly for wood which could block the entrance or enter the salt marshes in the harbour.

As the tide receded in Worthing, one of the most astonishing sights in Sussex's maritime history unfolded before the eyes of onlookers. The low water mark had turned brown, like a giant slick of tea, up to 30 yards wide in places.

By 3pm, people were seen carrying the wood off the beaches despite warnings they could be prosecuted for looting, facing a fine of up to £2,500.

In Bognor people were seen loading the wood on to lorries.

Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, it is an offence to conceal or keep possession of cargo or to fail to report the cargo to the authorities.

Heavy plant work began on Worthing beach yesterday. Alison Kentuck, the UK's Receiver of Wrecks, deals with shipwrecks on behalf of the Government.

She said: "We are here to make sure members of the public do not come on to the beach and injure themselves.

"The owners have contacted a salvage company. It is not a free-for-all and it is not a case of finders keepers. Nobody should be removing any timber.

"The contractors cleaning up are the same company which helped in the clear-up of the Napoli.

"It seems like the vast majority of the timber has come to shore already. The Coastguard aircraft has been assessing the timber which is still at sea."

Wendy Knight, of Worthing Borough Council, said the owners of the cargo had appointed separate contractors to find a market for the timber.

She said over the coming weeks it would be piled on an area of the beach where buyers would collect it.

The public promenade and pier reopened yesterday but the beach was expected to remain closed today.

She said: "Underneath the pier has been inspected because we were concerned there may be damage to the structure but it is okay.

"The main message is for the public not to come down while the clean-up goes ahead. There is a lot of machinery down here and it is dangerous."

By 7pm on Saturday the first giant digger had arrived from Cornwall on a low loader to begin, in darkness, the mammoth clear-up operation, starting between the pier and the Lido.

During the night more heavy machinery, including a dumper truck usually deployed on the construction of motorways, arrived from Devon and Cornwall.

At first light yesterday the scene was even more astonishing than the previous morning. The timber was piled high on the beach from the Half Brick pub in the east to Goring in the west.

Mac Skeet, a Worthing foreshore inspector who has been patrolling the seafront for 24 years, described the scene as "awesome" as he looked at the 20ft high mounds of wood which had stacked up outside his beach office.

As the day wore on, the number of sightseers began to escalate, so that by 1pm traffic on the town's approach roads had slowed to a snail's pace and Marine Parade was clogged with vehicles.

Keith Mercer, leader of Worthing Borough Council, said: "We are now assuming responsibility for the clean-up in conjunction with all the other agencies.

"We are very concerned about the public safety issues. We have seen people taking away timber, which is illegal and highly dangerous."

In Brighton and Hove, city council enforcement officer Michael Logue said a team of five had removed more than 200 of the planks from the beach between the West Pier and the Palace Pier on Saturday.

John Rodway, head of corporate and public safety at Adur District Council, was in charge of the clean-up in Shoreham.

He said the council's emergency plan had worked well and he had had meetings with the harbour master at Shoreham Port concerning the safety of shipping but both had agreed there was no major risk.

Anyone who sees cargo washing ashore is asked to report it to Solent Coastguard on 02392 559021 or 02392 559022.

  • Watch a video of the wood on the shore here
  • Or view our gallery of readers' photos of this dramatic event here