Drowned crew `left to sink or swim' Trawler crew `sent to their deaths'

Capsized trawler: Court told fishing boat had no radio beacon and life-raft was lashed to railings after refit
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A six-strong novice crew were "sent to their deaths" by two men who ran their unseaworthy trawler, a court was told yesterday. The steel-hulled scalloper Pescado was unstable when it sailed from Falmouth, Cornwall, on 25 February 1991 without a qualified skipper, it was alleged.

After a so-far unexplained capsize, 13 miles off Dodman Point, south Cornwall, the crew of five men and one woman "were left to sink or swim", the prosecutor, Francis Gilbert QC, told the jury at Bristol Crown Court. "In the event they all drowned," he said on the opening day of what could be the six-week manslaughter trial of Joseph O'Connor, 44, and Alan Ayres, 56.

The crew of the 100-ton Plymouth-registered vessel were only 12 minutes' flying time by rescue helicopter from the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose when they died, Mr Gilbert said.

But one of the Pescado's radios was broken and was not connected to a power supply. A short-wave radio was on board but none of the crew was a qualified operator. "It is an irony the rescue services were so close but unaware of the need for their help," Mr Gilbert said.

The vessel was not equipped with an emergency radio alert beacon and its sole out-of-date life-raft was "useless", and was lashed to the railings.

Mr Gilbert said that the vessel had been sent to sea without safety authorisation, following a refit "from barely more than being fit for scrap". Some of the crew would have survived if the required safety equipment had been on board, it was claimed. "None of this crew had any qualification whatsoever - they were in effect novices sent to their deaths by the defendants," he said.

"It is the Crown's case that at the time of the last fatal voyage, that the Pescado was being operated by the two defendants [in effect] in partnership, and they are both responsible in manslaughter for the deaths of the crew," he told the jury.

Mr O'Connor, of Durnford Street, Plymouth, and Mr Ayres, of North Hill, Plymouth, were the managing agent and the director respectively of Guideday Ltd, which owned the 35-year-old Pescado. They have each pleaded not guilty to six manslaughter charges, alleging breach of duty of care. It is said that the breach amounted to gross negligence and was a substantial cause of the crew's deaths.

Those who died were the skipper, Neil Curry, 28, of South Uist, Western Isles; his 23-year-old fiancee and ship's cook, Jo-Ann Thomas, of Plymouth; Peter Birley, 34, of Fleetwood, Lancashire; Adrian Flynn, 21, of Lincoln; Sean Kelly, 17, of Brixham, Devon; and Steven Hardy, 30, of Plymouth.

As the majority of them had little or no experience of scallop fishing, they were "innocents" when they sailed on the last voyage.

Mr Gilbert claimed that although the Pescado was issued with a Department of Transport fishing vessel safety certificate in 1987, the certificate was never valid, because an engine was later replaced.

"This vessel never, ever sailed within the law from the moment O'Connor bought her until she sank," he said.

After buying the vessel in 1987, Mr O'Connor had rigged her as a scalloper before going bankrupt two years later.

He persuaded a friend, Richard Cox, to buy Guideday, and purchase the Pescado from the receiver, for pounds 5,500 in March 1990.

Mr O'Connor supervised the later refitting and re-equipping of the vessel, an operation that was largely financed by Mr Ayres, Mr Gilbert said. He claimed that Mr O'Connor had deliberately avoided alerting the Department of Transport to the finished refit and was "hoping to get away with it".

Evidence pointed to the vessel being lost in a capsize resulting from difficulties with the gear, with the crew being unable to remedy the problem before she was dragged down. However, it may be said that it resulted from a collision with a surface vessel or submarine, Mr Gilbert told the jury.

But whatever the cause of the sinking, it was the lack of stability and the absence of safety equipment which was the most serious aspect of the case, he said.

The charges follow a police investigation that was launched after the Pescado was raised from the seabed in a pounds 250,000 operation in September 1993. The hearing was adjourned until today.