U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and Labour Party lawmaker Kate Hoey accompany a Brexit flotilla on the Thames past Parliament in London. (Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse)

Next week's referendum on Britain's continued membership in the European Union — widely called the "Brexit" vote — is a very big deal. On June 23, the country is set to vote on whether to exit the E.U. The referendum will have serious implications for Europe, if not the entire world.

But on Wednesday morning in London, the Brexit debate steered into uncharted waters — as boats led by a politician who backs Britain leaving the E.U. was ambushed by anti-Brexit boats led by an Irish rock star, with the rival flotillas insulting each other and spraying water over each other.

To many in Britain, the scene was dumbfounding, an example of how far the debate about Britain and the E.U. had strayed from facts and figures. As journalists pointed out on Twitter, the scene was surreal.

The strange situation was sparked June 3 when Nigel Farage, leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), announced that he planned to lead a flotilla of 60 boats full of Brexit supporters down the Thames to London's Parliament. Farage described the flotilla as a protest of the E.U.'s fisheries policies, a point of contention for many fishermen in Britain. "It will be big, visual and dramatic," he said. "The demand will be clear: We want our waters back."

In the end, Farage's flotilla wasn't quite as large as he imagined — around 30 vessels were involved. But it was still remarkable to see boats full of pro-Britain banners and slogans sail through the British capital. It provoked plenty of discussion online.

The situation was bizarre enough by this point.

But things took an unexpected turn when Bob Geldof, the former lead singer of the band Boomtown Rats and a noted campaigner for Britain to remain in the E.U., arrived in his own boat, leading an anti-Brexit flotilla. Mikey Smith, a reporter for the Daily Mirror newspaper, was aboard Geldof's boat and captured the scene.

Things quickly became heated, with pro-Brexit boats apparently spraying anti-Brexit boats with a hose.


A boat carrying supporters of Britain remaining in the European Union is sprayed with water by a flotilla of fishing trawlers organized by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. (Facundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency)

The two flotillas had brought sound systems to drown each other out.

Geldof gave a speech in which he said Farage was "no fisherman's friend" and was a "fraud." Farage accused Geldof of "mocking" the British fishing industry. "These are communities that have been devastated," Farage said. "These are communities that no one has listened to for years."

The scene sparked even more discussion and widespread mockery.

But others were perturbed that a serious debate about the future of Britain and the E.U. had been reduced to a nonsensical flotilla battle. And some were concerned about how ridiculous British politics might look to outsiders.

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