A fishing boat skipper caught off the coast of Cornwall trying to smuggle £84m (€98m, $105m) worth of cocaine into the UK has been jailed.

Pensioner Michael McDermott, 68, from Ireland, was arrested with British shipmate David Pleasants, 57, and Dutch national Gerald Van de Kooij, 27, in August last year after their vessel was intercepted by British police and border force cutters.

A search of the boat, named the MV Bianca, found almost a ton of the class A drug hidden under bags of sand and gravel in the boat's fish hold.

It became the biggest single seizure of cocaine in 2016, with investigators taking two days to remove the 38 drug bales from the vessel.

Police said the arrests removed a "crucial link" between cocaine producers in South America and dealers on UK streets.

Both Pleasants and Van de Kooij admitted drug smuggling offences, but McDermott denied the charge, claiming he knew there were drugs on board but had been forced into shipping them.

The skipper, who had a previous conviction after being paid to sail a boat from Spain containing cannabis, also initially claimed not to know the two men he was arrested with.

But all three were convicted of drug offences and were jailed at Bristol Crown Court on 6 April.

McDermott, of Waterford, was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while Pleasants, of Grimsby, was handed 14 years and Van de Kooij, of Amersfoort, given 12 years.

The trial heard how McDermott had purchased the MV Bianca in Whitstable, Kent, with £17,000 in cash just weeks before his arrest.

He told the seller he planned to sail to Spain and use the vessel for diving and chartered angling trips. The bill of sale was also signed by Pleasants using a false name.

The boat was then taken to Ramsgate for work to be carried out on it, with Pleasants and McDermott sleeping on the boat at the time.

Van de Kooij flew in from the Netherlands a few days before the trio set off on the MV Bianca from Ramsgate.

Navigation records show the boat sailed through the English Channel and out into the Atlantic, before turning round and heading back towards Cornwall.

National Crime Agency (NCA) investigators believe it was at this turnaround point, south of Ireland, that the MV Bianca took the cocaine on board from another vessel.

The MV Bianca was intercepted as it entered UK territorial waters off the coast of Cornwall, and a joint team of NCA and Border Force officers boarded the vessel, detaining the crew.

From left to right, Michael McDermott, David Pleasants and Gerald Van de Kooij NCA

In total, the drugs haul weighed 939kg with a purity of between 60% and 70%. It had an estimated street vale of nearly £84m, the NCA said.

Mark Harding, of the NCA, said: "This was a huge quantity of cocaine, the biggest single seizure made in the UK in 2016.

"Michael McDermott used his specialist skills as a sailor to attempt to evade border controls. We provided solid evidence that led to his conviction and have taken out another means of transport used by organised criminals to bring drugs to Britain.

"His was a crucial link in a chain that leads from cocaine manufacturers in South America to drug dealers in the UK. In stopping this consignment we have prevented further criminality by the gangs who bring violence and exploitation to our streets."

Mike Stepney, director of national operations for Border Force, added: "The huge haul of dangerous drugs that Michael McDermott and his crew sought to sneak into the UK had the potential to do untold harm to countless people around the country.

"Officers from Border Force and the NCA used sophisticated intelligence and technical expertise to track this vessel and intercept it before its illicit cargo could ever be unloaded."

cocaine UK
The cocaine was the biggest seizure in the UK of 2016 NCA