Ship was wrecked `for view of the coast'

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The Independent Online
The world's oldest working sailing ship was wrecked on the Cornish coast with the loss of three crew when her owner-captain took her close inshore to admire the coastline, a court heard yesterday.

Despite knowing the coast well, Mark Litchfield steered the 137-year- old Maria Asumpta on the course, regardless of adverse wind and tide conditions, claimed the prosecution lawyer, Richard Lissack, at Exeter Crown Court yesterday.

The 125-foot-long two-masted square rigger went aground on the "treacherous coastline" at Rumps Point outside Padstow Harbour on 30 May 1995, and broke up "almost immediately", said Mr Lissack.

Mr Litchfield, from Boxley, Kent, has pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of the three members of the 14-strong crew who died. They were: Anne Taylor, 51 of Wallingford, Oxfordshire, the ship's cook; second engineer John Shannon, 30, from Queensland, Australia; and Emily MacFarlane, 19, of Felixstowe, Suffolk, an assistant bosun. The charges allege that Mr Litchfield, a former Royal Navy lieutenant, was in breach of a duty to take reasonable care of those who sailed in the vessel.

The prosecution lawyer said Mr Litchfield set the course, chose the route, decided all matters of navigation and ran all aspects of the vessel. "He would not brook any question of his authority," he told the court.

"Despite knowing the north Cornish coastline very well, he decided to take her close inshore regardless of the prevailing wind and tide which were adverse. He did this to admire the coastline, let those on the cliffs admire the Maria Asumpta, and to use up some time as they were ahead of schedule," he said.

"In taking her close inshore, Litchfield put the vessel on a lee shore - a situation where the wind was blowing towards the shore to which you are close.

Mr Litchfield, he said, broke two of the golden rules of sailing. Always maintain a good distance off, and never get caught on a lee shore. Throughout that afternoon he had every chance to tack out to sea and put distance between the vessel and the shore. "He chose not to despite the obvious hazards that loomed," Mr Lissack told the jury.

"His navigation of the latter stages of the course was totally inadequate. He used the wrong charts, with no passage drawn, and no attempt to mark off no-go areas," said Mr Lissack.

Mr Litchfield "did not even take the simple step of ordering the crew to put on lifejackets despite the fact that the grounding of the vessel with the obvious risk to life was a possibility," Mr Lissack claimed.

Mr Lissack said a square-rig vessel was particularly vulnerable on a lee shore, and for some hours before her loss the Maria Asumpta was fighting adverse wind and tide and being progressively set in on a lee shore.

Mr Litchfield, who had bought the Maria Asumpta in 1980 after a film company asked him to provide two square-riggers, had no square rigger specific qualifications, said Mr Lissack. But he knew more about sailing the Maria Asumpta than anyone else, and spoke of the vessel as "his baby".

The case continues.