Channel sinkings safety calls rejected

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The Independent Online
THE DEPARTMENT of Transport has rejected calls for improvement in the monitoring of shipping going through the Channel by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, which yesterday published reports of inquiries into two collisions which killed 11 fishermen last year.

The inquiries examined the sinkings of the Wilhelmina J in April 1991, when six crew died, and of the Ocean Hound four months later, in which five lives were lost. There were no survivors from either trawler.

The MAIB suggests that the Ocean Hound sank in calm sea conditions because it was hit by two large ships in a busy Channel shipping lane about 15 miles due east of Ramsgate. Neither of the larger ships in what has been called a marine 'hit and run accident' has been identified. The report says that just after 11.30pm on 10 August 1991, the radar echo from the Ocean Hound merged with that of a larger vessel and then disappeared. The boat was probably capsized, drifted for a few hours and then sank, 'probably following a second collision'.

Initially, after divers had examined the wreck, it had been thought that no collision had occurred and relatives of the dead crew say that the findings of the inquiry are speculative because the boat has never been raised. Suzanne Nash, of Brixham, Devon, whose 30-year-old husband Andrew died in the accident, said: 'No one knows at the end of the day whether that is right or wrong. Maybe if the boat had been brought up you would have had some true answers.'

Because the other vessels have never been found, the MAIB recommends that all ships should, in the long term, be fitted with electronic identification systems. In the shorter term, it wants all vessels passing through the Dover Strait to identify themselves to the authorities. However, the Department of Transport has rejected these recommendations, saying that such agreements can only be reached by negotiation through international bodies. The DoT also says that such identification would not have prevented the accident.

The MAIB criticised the crew of the ship involved in the first collision, saying that while it was possible they were unaware of the incident, 'Ocean Hound's presence ought to have been recognised well before the event if a proper lookout was being kept'. The second vessel may well have been unaware of the capsized boat's presence.

At the inquest last June into the deaths of the five men, which returned an open verdict, shipping lanes in the strait were described by a coastguard as a 'motorway where you cannot stop'.

The Wilhelmina J sank after a collision with a Cypriot freighter, the 8,000-tonne Zulfikar, while trawling for scallops in foggy conditions in the Channel 20 miles off Brighton on 10 April 1991. The report says that the cause of the collision was the failure by the Cypriot vessel to monitor its radar properly and the mistaken assumption by its officers that the Wilhelmina J would pass safely on the port side. The crew of the Zulfikar later claimed they had not realised what had happened until they noticed the trawler's aerial on deck.

The report says that the Zulfikar's crew broke at least five of the international regulations for preventing collisions at sea. They failed to have a proper lookout, the ship was going too fast for the conditions and the engines were not 'ready for immediate manoeuvre'.

The report also criticised the master for failing to stop and delaying reporting the collision for two hours, 'a possible contributory cause to the loss of life'. It says the master was 'seriously at fault in his failure to stop his ship, find out what had happened to the other vessel and report the circumstances of the collision immediately'.

Relatives of the dead crewmen were angered when the Indian captain, Vishwas Patwardhan, and the second mate, Moostakali Adam, were acquitted in a Cyprus court last November of negligence in relation to the collision.

Report of investigation into the loss of the fishing vessel Ocean Hound, and Report of investigation into the loss of the fishing vessel Wilhelmina J, Marine Accident Investigation Branch, pounds 9 and pounds 15 respectively.

(Photographs omitted)