A damaged paddle boat seen drifting in a busy shipping lane last night sparked an alert involving lifeboatmen and coastguards.

The stricken 10ft plastic vessel was seen 15 miles off Eastbourne.

A Coastguard fixed-wing aeroplane was launched from Manston in Kent just after 4pm and spent three hours searching the area for people.

The RNLI's Eastbourne all-weather lifeboat, the Royal Thames, was also launched but en route coxswain Mark Sawyer was informed by coastguard officials that no one was in the water.

Lifeboatmen recovered the empty vessel from the sea.

Mr Sawyer said: "The small boat's damage, with no mast and no tiller, was consistent with boats we have recovered which have been swept from the beach."

A Dover Coastguard spokesman said today: "We were fairly sure no one was in danger. But you can never be totally certain in those circumstances which is why we launched the fixed-wing aeroplane.

"We're not sure how the boat came to be there but we suspect it drifted out from Sovereign Harbour and was hit."