'Bowbelle' skipper did not follow guidelines

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The captain of the Bowbelle yesterday faced survivors and families of those who drowned in the Marchioness riverboat disaster in 1989 and explained publicly for the first time why he had sailed away from the accident and refused to offer assistance to those in danger.

The captain of the Bowbelle yesterday faced survivors and families of those who drowned in the Marchioness riverboat disaster in 1989 and explained publicly for the first time why he had sailed away from the accident and refused to offer assistance to those in danger.

Captain Douglas Henderson sat just feet away from many who were bereaved on 20 August 1989, when Bowbelle, a "juggernaut-like" 1,475-ton dredger collided with the much smaller pleasure craft, Marchioness, killing 51 people.

Bowbelle had an array of lifesaving equipment, including two large lifeboats, a 12-man life raft, lifebuoys and life-jackets, the hearing was told on the second day of the formal investigation into the disaster.

Yet at no point did captain Henderson order his crew - which included a cook in a drunken sleep below deck and a helmsman with serious health problems, thick glasses and a hearing aid - to throw the lifesaving equipment to passengers who were floundering in the dark tidal waters below.

It was not a "top priority", he told the hearing. Instead, he explained, he had tried to regain control of his huge vessel and get it away from the scene so that more suitable rescue ships could manoeuvre freely.

"I determined my best course of action was to get clear of the area, and at the time I didn't think of launching the lifebuoys," the captain said.

Nigel Teare QC, counsel for the Attorney General later asked Captain Henderson: "At what stage did you hear cries from the water on the portside?" Visibly shaken, the captain replied: "I would not like to recall. I do not... it is something that I just... I don't know."

The investigation heard that the skipper had been on a pub crawl, had drunk six pints of beer and slept for just three hours before taking charge of the mammoth ship.

"Is it usual for you to visit five pubs on your own in a matter of hours," asked Mr Teare. "Yes," replied the captain.

Asked if he was intoxicated when he took charge of the Bowbelle, he replied categorically that he was not.

The captain was later challenged about how he and his crew could have failed to see the "well lit and extremely noisy" Marchioness, which was carrying 132 passengers celebrating the 26th birthday of Antonio de Vasconcellos.

"In my opinion, I had a look- out system in place which was adequate" he said, although he admitted that his blind spot, caused by the low wheel-house and dredging gear, was a "problem". The investigation also heard that the captain had failed to use a VHF walkie-talkie or a bell to communicate with his look-out, Terence Blayney, as guidelines advise, and had relied on Mr Blayney to shout warnings in the event of danger.

Under cross-examination from Michael Mansfield QC, who is representing 87 relatives, Captain Henderson conceded that he should have instructed Mr Blayney more carefully about the need to give ample warning of obstructions. He also admitted giving "inaccurate" information to police when he suggested there had been two men on look-out at the front of the Bowbelle.

Mr Mansfield said the captain had failed to comply with collision regulations or even "rudimentary precautions" when he chose not to sound a warning blast while negotiating a blind corner in the river. "I was unaware it was necessary," the captain said.

To which Mr Mansfield replied: "Or was it that there was ... a culture of navigation [in which] you were the big boys and you just got on with it."

In 1991, Captain Henderson was formally acquitted of a charge of failing to keep a proper look-out after juries twice failed to reach verdicts.

The investigation continues.

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