The incident

At 1311 on 7 May 2018, the single-handed fishing vessel Laura Jane capsized off Mount Batten Breakwater in Plymouth trapping its skipper in the wheelhouse. The vessel remained afloat with a few centimetres of the wheelhouse protruding above the water.

Two RNLI lifeboats arrived at the scene within 15 minutes of the capsize and Laura Jane was towed to the nearby Batten Bay beach, arriving at around 1400. The skipper was extracted from the wheelhouse by two of the RNLI crew who broke a wheelhouse window to get access to him. He was immersed in water, was unconscious and not breathing.

Attempts to resuscitate him by the lifeboat crew and paramedics from the emergency services were unsuccessful. He was then airlifted to Derriford Hospital, where he was pronounced deceased at 1450.

Conclusions

  1. Laura Jane lost stability and capsized due to a build-up of water in the aft part of the vessel. The water entered via low level freeing ports, which became submerged due to the weight of fishing gear being carried. With no automatic bilge pump in the aft section, the water accumulated until the vessel lost stability.
  2. Laura Jane had a very low freeboard, with just 85mm between the waterline and the freeing ports
  3. No freeboard or stability assessments had been made of Laura Jane by the owner before the vessel commenced fishing operations, and there was no guidance in place to help the skipper assess the vessel’s safe carrying capacity.
  4. There was no evidence that the skipper made a distress call or attempted to escape from the wheelhouse, such as by breaking a window, and it is therefore likely that he was incapacitated immediately after the capsize.
  5. Although a number of rescuers, with a range of capabilities, were quickly on scene, the nature of capsize and that the skipper was unable to escape from the wheelhouse severely constrained their ability to assist.
  6. Inspecting the vessel at a farm meant that the MCA surveyor was unable to determine precisely where the waterline would be. Nonetheless, he did not appreciate that the freeing ports, which were subsequently measured at 85mm above the waterline, were substantially lower than the 300mm recommended minimum for decked vessels. The presence of freeing ports on an open vessel was not challenged at any of the subsequent surveys until the vessel’s loss.
  7. Irrespective of whether Laura Jane was categorised as an open or a decked fishing vessel, its hull openings reduced its freeboard to a fraction of the recommended freeboard for either category.
  8. Laura Jane’s owners over the period 2011 to 2018 assumed that their vessel was safe to operate because it was passing MCA inspections. A more comprehensive set of inspections could have identified the hazard posed by the freeing ports, with the result that remedial action would have been needed before the fishing vessel certificate was issued.
  9. The skipper had not completed all the mandatory training required by professional fishermen. In particular, he had not completed the Safety Awareness and Risk Assessment training course, which should have heightened his risk awareness. Further, the skipper’s appreciation of the dangers inherent in overloading a vessel would have been enhanced had he received the specific stability awareness training required to attain the Seafish.

Safety issues

  • The weight of the fishing gear on Laura Jane reduced its freeboard to the extent that water entered the vessel through its freeing ports, causing it to capsize.
  • Between 2012 and the vessel’s loss, UK MCA inspected the vessel a number of times. However, the presence of low level freeing ports on an open boat was not challenged.
  • Laura Jane’s owner had not undertaken a stability assessment of the vessel, as recommended in guidance published by the MCA, and had taken the successful outcome of MCA inspections as assurance that the vessel was safe to operate.
  • The skipper had not completed the mandatory Safety Awareness and Risk Assessment training course or any stability awareness training.

Recommendations

UK MAIB advised Laura Jane’s owner:

  • to ensure that crew employed on its vessels possess all mandatory safety training course certificates, and to require its skippers to complete the voluntary Seafish <16.5m skipper’s certificate scheme with a view to enhancing their stability awareness.
  • to carry out stability assessments, in accordance with published guidance, of any <12m fishing vessels that it may own.

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