A year of living dangerously

Following the death of their daughter on a 'gap' holiday, Paul and Amelia Lenas hope their legal action will protect other young people, says Robert Verkaik
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The Independent Online

Charlotte Lenas's last e-mails from Australia to her family back in Britain told of how she had seen the "starriest sky ever". But just a few hours later her gap-year adventure turned to tragedy when the yacht in which she was sailing capsized and Charlotte, 18, was trapped below deck and drowned.

Her parents have now begun legal action against the company that arranged Charlotte's gap-year holiday in a test case for fraud that could protect thousands of other young travellers from the false claims made by the multi-million-pound student holiday business.

The family is suing for damages and a shortfall in the insurance payout they received for Charlotte's death.

Charlotte Lenas, from Watford, Hertfordshire, and Linda Yarr, 35, from Glasgow, both drowned after the sail-training yacht Rising Farrster capsized in the middle of the night on 1 April, 2001, off the coast of New South Wales.

Three other British trainees aboard the 38ft vessel survived by swimming for 17 hours through shark-infested waters before reaching a remote beach near the town of Ballina in northern New South Wales. It took them a further 12 hours to alert local rescue services.

The five were sailing from Southport in Queensland to Sydney as part of a course to qualify as coastal skippers.

In their first interview since the death of their daughter, Paul and Amelia Lenas say they hope their landmark case will prevent similar tragedies and serve as a warning to holiday companies who make thousands of pounds each year thanks to the growth in packaged gap-year holidays.

"We spent a long time with our daughter trying to find the right kind of holiday for her. We looked at lots of different brochures offering different kinds of experiences but we settled on the one published by Flying Fish [the holiday company owned by Leisure Management International] because it gave us the greater peace of mind," says Amelia Lenas.

"Charlotte had her whole life in front of her when she was taken from us. Our legal action has nothing to do with money, but if it makes just one family stop to ask whether a holiday company can really support its claims for protecting their children when they are off on adventure holidays then we will have achieved something."

The case against Leisure Management International alleges that the company falsely led the Lenas's to believe that the organisation was accredited by the Australian Yachting Federation.

The Flying Fish brochure contained a "guarantee of safety standards" that claimed the company's Australian training centre was inspected annually by the Royal Yachting Association and/or the Australian Yachting Federation.

In a letter written by the family's lawyers, Collins Solicitors, to Flying Fish the company was told: "Both our clients and Charlotte relied upon that representation when reaching their decision."

Des Collins, one of the country's leading personal injury lawyers, says if the family wins the case in court it will serve as an important warning to holiday companies that exaggerate standards of safety of care in their advertising material."

Charlotte Lenas, an aspiring actress who had suffered from Bell's palsy, was an excellent swimmer who regularly swam lengths of up to a mile.

At the time of the accident she had just come off her watch and was below deck in the saloon.

Andrew Hunt, the ship's skipper, told the Australian inquest into the deaths of Charlotte Lenas and Linda Yarr: "I was lying on my bunk on the starboard side listening to the watch change ... Charlotte was coming off watch and Linda and Emma (Stacey) were coming on ... I heard a crack that I can only describe as a pane of glass breaking and the yacht falling over on its starboard side.

"There was no lurching to suggest an impact, my first thought was that the mast had broken so I told the girls not to panic and I stood on the sink and looked through companionway only to see that the mast was still there. I knew then that the keel had come off and I shouted to the girls, 'Get out and get out now.' I climbed into the water and as I did so the yacht inverted 180 degrees onto its back."

Emma Stacey told the inquest how she escaped as the boat turned on its side: "I scrambled up the steps and I saw Charlotte was next to me. I could not see Linda as she was behind us. By the time I was at the top of the steps, water was pouring in through the hatch and I was under water. When I came up the boat had completely turtled."

The coroner, John Abernethy, said Stacey was "very lucky to be alive". But he said it was "not surprising that Linda Yarr and Charlotte Lenas did not make it" out of the vessel. The survivors banged on the hull hoping that Linda and Charlotte might be trapped in an air pocket and still be alive. They also considered diving under the boat to try to help them but "were simply afraid for their own lives", the inquest heard.

But their efforts were no to avail and Charlotte's body was later recovered from inside the upturned yacht.

Abernethy, who recorded a finding of death by drowning on the two girls, recommended that similar yachts built before 1994, when engineering guidelines were made more rigorous, should be checked for similar weaknesses.

The company that ran the sailing course, Cowes-based adventure firm Leisure Management International, was cleared of any blame over the tragedy. The yacht had been inspected and approved for sailing-school use by the Yachting Association of New South Wales on behalf of the Australian Yachting Federation (AYF). But at the time of the accident it was on interstate passage between Queensland and New South Wales and was thus technically outside the jurisdiction of the AYF for sailing-school use.

Andrew Lorant, the director of Leisure Management International, said: "All activities provided by this company are regulated by the appropriate sporting governing body. The Rising Farrster accident in 2001 was a tragedy but it was not caused by any irregularity in our legal status. If a claim is brought against this company in relation to our recognition by the Australian Yachting Federation it will certainly be defended."

Charlotte is still fondly remembered by friends and teachers at Parmiter's School in Hertfordshire.

Though she had still to make up her mind about which university she would attend to carry on her education the history admissions tutor at Nottingham University felt compelled to write a letter to Charlotte's parents as soon as he read of the tragedy: "I know that she had yet to make up her mind about the choice of university ... and may not have chosen Nottingham in the end ... but her heroic struggle to complete her A-levels in the most adverse circumstances had made a lasting impression on everyone here. We hoped very much we could contribute to the brighter future that surely lay ahead of her and which she so richly deserved."

Charlotte kept in close contact with her family during her year away from home. In her last e-mail to her parents she wrote: "But best of all, I've seen the starriest sky ever." These are the words the family have chosen for the epitaph on Charlotte's gravestone.