P&O ferry officer is cleared over deaths of three sailors

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An experienced seaman accused of leaving three yachtsmen to to drown in the English Channel after his ferry hit or swamped their vessel was acquitted of manslaughter yesterday.

Michael Hubble, 62, was cleared after five days of deliberations by jurors at Winchester Crown Court. The jury is still considering separate charges under the Merchant Shipping Act of engaging in conduct as a seaman likely to cause death or serious injury.

Childhood friends James Meaby and Rupert Saunders, both 36, from London, and Jason Downer, 35, from Kent, died when their yacht Ouzo sank just off the Isle of Wight in the early hours of 21 August last year. They had been sailing overnight to Devon for the Dartmouth Regatta. The Ouzo sank without trace and all three men died in the water. Their bodies were not found until 23 and 24 August last year.

Mr Hubble, of Folkestone, Kent, was the officer of the watch on the 37,600-tonne P&O ferry Pride of Bilbao, which was allegedly involved in an incident with the 22ft Ouzo. He was accused of "turning a blind eye", "crossing his fingers" and failing to alert coastguards or even his own captain.

But during his trial, Mr Hubble denied manslaughter due to gross negligence and insisted his ship had avoided the yacht entirely.

He told jurors he carried out a "very safe manoeuvre" and insisted: "I was perfectly happy that the vessel was absolutely safe." He said he saw the yacht's lights when he looked back, and repeatedly told the court he would have gone back to help if he had known another boat was in danger.

It emerged during the trial that the Ouzo allegedly sailed close to a 3,000-tonne coastal tanker, Crescent Beaune, at 1.40am about the time it sank.

The tanker's captain, Alaistair Crichton, told the jury he had broken the law by having only a second officer and not another lookout on his bridge that evening. He admitted that he could not say whether his ship had collided with or been close to the Ouzo.

The prosecution claimed Mr Hubble should have stopped his ferry and told the captain and the coastguard because the yacht was too close to his ship and he could not have known it was safe. Mr Hubble admitted that he was involved in a close-quarters incident with a yacht that was in his ship's "comfort zone" but said it was not the Ouzo.

The three yachtsmen who died were experienced sailors who attended school and university together. They left Bembridge on the Isle of Wight on the evening tide of 20 August and set sail through the Solent towards Devon. Mr Saunders, a City worker from Tooting, south London, was the skipper and owner of the Ouzo, which was 24 years old but in good shape. All three men were experienced sailors and were found with their inflated lifejackets on. The case continues.