A SEARCH operation was stood down after emergency responders confirmed flares fired into the sky were part of a hoax.

Coastguard teams, the RNLI and Essex Police all scrambled to reports of a man in distress, which is now being treated as a malicious act.

Emergency services were called to the incident off the coast near Hadleigh on Thursday.

Jeremy Littlewoods, 35, manager of HM Coastguard teams for Canvey and Southend, claimed a man got onboard a boat and began throwing life jackets into the sea and firing flares.

Mr Littlewoods said: “He put himself in danger by getting onto the boat.

“It is also dangerous to let off flares if you don’t know what you are doing.

“It could have also been dangerous for the boat owners if they had confronted the man.

“It is a rarity for us to have someone getting on a boat and letting off the flares like this.

“We don’t believe he had moved the boat.

“I don’t know where the owners were but they did arrive at some time during the incident.

“We were called first about life vests being thrown into the water.”

An eyewitness added: “It was so quick and the crews and officers arrived very soon.

“I was surprised to see it happen.

“I’ve never known of anything like it before.

“I’ve never seen flares used either.

“I hope nobody was hurt at all.”

A spokesman for Essex Police said: “We were called by colleagues from HM Coastguard after reports a boat had become in trouble off of Two Tree Island in Southend just before 5.50pm on Thursday, July 18.

“Officers attended and arrested a 28-year-old man on suspicion of criminal damage.”Witnesses reported seeing three police cars and various coastguard vehicles at the scene.

The crews closed off part of the Two Tree Island slipway during the incident which tied up the emergency services.