The incident

At about 1415 UTC on 20 November 2017, the single-handed creel boat Varuna was found aground and unmanned on Eilean nan Naomh, a small island to the west of Camusterrach.

Varuna had left its mooring earlier in the day and had been seen working creel strings to the west of Applecross Bay. Radar data obtained from the nearby BUTEC2 Range Control indicated that Varuna left its fishing grounds at 1332 and then headed back towards its mooring in Poll Creadha.

In the aftermath of the accident, an extensive sea, land and air search failed to locate the boat owner/skipper, who had been the only person on board. However, almost 3 weeks after the accident, his body was found ashore in Staffin Bay on the Isle of Skye.

It is likely that the owner/skipper, who did not routinely wear a lifejacket or other buoyancy aid, fell overboard during Varuna’s return passage to Poll Creadha.

Conclusions

  • The precise events surrounding the disappearance of Alasdair remain unknown as there were no witnesses and no direct evidence to account for his disappearance. However, it is probable that Alasdair fell overboard shortly before Varuna ran aground.
  • The slot-in transom door had not been fitted following shooting and, with no means of fall prevention in use, there was an increased risk of Alasdair falling overboard through the shooting gate in the transom, and it is possible that he did so.
  • Alasdair was not wearing a PFD and was not carrying a PLB so his chances of survival and being rescued after entering the water were significantly reduced.
  • Varuna’s AIS transponder was switched on but was not functioning. It would not have provided the alert required to initiate the search and rescue effort, but access to an AIS track can help those involved in the initial search and rescue operation to target their search activity most effectively.
  • Had Alasdair been required to produce a written risk assessment, identifying the need to close the shooting gate when not in use and to wear a PFD while working on deck, this might have provided a stimulus for him to have adopted safer working practices. It is therefore hoped that the ratification of ILO 188 provides an opportunity to extend the requirement to document a risk assessment to all commercial fishing vessels.
  • ILO 188 applies to all fishermen, regardless of employment status, and its expected ratification in the UK provides the MCA with an opportunity to make explicit its expectation that, unless other effective protection measures are in place, fishermen should wear PFDs when working on exposed decks. The draft legislation under consultation is therefore welcome, but it will need to be robustly applied if it is to succeed where education campaigns and the handing out of free PFDs have so far failed.
  • There is a continuing need for effective educational programmes targeted at those contemplating single-handed fishing that prompt them to adopt safe and professional behaviours while at work.
  • The MCA needs to adopt measures to ensure that its oversight of commercial fishing is effective, and that fishing vessel owners in remote communities receive updates on changes to legislation and safety guidance in a timely manner.

Lessons learned

  • The owner did not use the slot-in transom door following shooting, or wear a safety tether on deck therefore the chances of falling through the shooting gate were significantly increased
  • The owner was not wearing a PFD or lifejacket
  • The owner did not carry a PLB therefore he had no means of alerting anyone once he had fallen overboard.

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