Ferry captain who hit rocks 'risked 300 lives'

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The Independent Online

A ferry captain who grounded his vessel at full speed on rocks off Jersey "recklessly" endangered the lives of his 300 passengers, according to an investigation into the accident.

Captain Philippe Peneau failed to slow the Saint-Malo from 37mph, even though he knew it was off course in a narrow stretch of water. Once the catamaran began taking on water, it took the crew 77 minutes to evacuate the passengers instead of the recommended 30 minutes.

Yesterday, Captain Roy Bullen, the Jersey harbourmaster, said it was "miraculous" that no one had died in the accident on 17 April. Fifty-five people were injured, including many elderly people who broke limbs while jumping 17ft into liferafts. Ladders which were supposed to help in evacuation of the catamaran turned out to be too difficult to use.

The report, conducted by the Department of Transport's marine accident investigation branch, criticised the catamaran's lifejackets - saying they were too cumbersome - its evacuation procedures and its liferafts, recommending that they should be covered.

Although the liferafts complied with safety requirements, rescuers found that some elderly passengers were suffering from hypothermia because the rafts were open to the elements.

Contrary to reports at the time, investigators established that Capt Peneau had not been taking an irresponsible short-cut, but chose the commonly- used "boat passage" route because it would be calmer for passengers, many of whom had become seasick during the journey from St Helier to Sark.

Problems arose when he steered to starboard to avoid a number of fishing marker bouys. This took him off course but he failed to slow down or stop to ascertain his position. Within seconds, the vessel had grounded on La Frouquie rock and was taking in water.

No charges have been levelled at Capt Peneau, and it is up to the French authorities to decide whether to revoke his master's certificate. But his French employers, Channiland, were held up for criticism.

"Safety management within the Channiland company needs to be improved," the report said. It criticised the muster lists for being out of date, and the fact that the hostess read the safety announcement one line at a time, alternating between French and English. "The fact that passengers were crowded around both exit doors before any of the crew had arrived to take charge at each exit, the fact that the evacuation procedures and documentation had bot been modified ... the fact that the children's life jackets were not distributed, all suggest that safety and safety training was poorly managed."

Despite the criticism in the report, Capt Bullen said the crew had saved lives. The Saint-Malo has been refitted at a cost of pounds 2m, its crew increased from seven to nine and its passenger limit reduced from 350 to 300. It returned to service two weeks ago.