Shipwreck crew washed away `like rag dolls'

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The Independent Online
The skipper of the Maria Asumpta yesterday described survivors' desperate attempts to save a female crew member as the 137-year-old vessel was wrecked on the north Cornwall coast.

The square-rigged sailing ship was smashed to pieces with the loss of three lives at Rumps Point, near Padstow, in May 1995. Mark Litchfield, 56, from Boxley, Kent, has pleaded not guilty at Exeter Crown Court to manslaughter of Anne Taylor, 51, from Oxfordshire, Emily MacFarlane, 19, from Felixstowe, and John Shannon, 30, from Queensland, Australia.

Mr Litchfield has told the court that when the vessel began to head towards the shore near Padstow he started the ship's engines.

When the engines failed he raised more sails, and then, in the last 10 seconds before the tragedy, he said, he started to pray.

The helmsman, John Howells, had told Mr Litchfield he thought they were going to make it, but Mr Litchfield told the jury: "I was not so sure... The next moment there was a tremendous crash and the ship stopped dead."

As he began to call on the radio, the ship was lifted, dumped on its port side, and he heard a splintering noise. He said a huge wave lifted the ship again and he found himself under water.

As the bow of the ship came up against the rock, he began to make his way forward. "It was like walking on an earthquake. The ship was breaking up under one's feet. The deck was awash already," he said.

John Shannon and another crew member had been washed away, he said, "like rag dolls" from a rock. Mr Litchfield, who had managed to get on to a rock with other crew, saw Emily MacFarlane on the vessel and tried to get her off. But she fell into the water and was swept around the bow.

"One had the terrible feeling it was the last we would see of her," said Mr Litchfield, adding that waves up to 15 feet high were crashing against the cliff.

He went on: "We saw to our horror Anne Taylor was still on the deck, rooted to the spot. We were encouraging her to jump into the sea between the cliffs and the ship but she wouldn't do it. The ship took an enormous lurch to port and everything went into the sea, taking Anne with it"

The skipper said they saw Ms MacFarlane on the bow of the ship, adding: "How she got back there, I do not know."

He said crewman Jamie Campbell then "performed the bravest act I have ever seen". The crewman ran across rocks, got on to the vessel and helped Ms MacFarlane on to a rock.

Mr Litchfield went on: "They didn't quite make it to the top of the rock. They jumped off and landed on the side. A wave came and swept them off."

Attempts were made to get a rope to Ms MacFarlane but she slipped from Mr Campbell's grasp.

"That was the last we saw of her," Mr Litchfield said.

The case continues.