Ship's captain jailed over crew's death on the rocks

Kim Sengupta,Louise Hancock
Thursday 07 August 1997 23:02 BST

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The skipper of the shipwrecked Maria Asumpta, the world's oldest sailing vessel, was jailed for 18 months yesterday after being being convicted of manslaughter over the deaths of three crew members.

Former Royal Navy lieutenant Mark Litchfield, 56, was found guilty on a majority decision at Exeter Crown Court after a five-week trial which followed the loss of the square-rigger on the north Cornwall coast.

Mr Justice Butterfield, the presiding judge, had told the jurors that to return a manslaughter verdict they had to be sure Litchfield, who also owned the ship, was grossly negligent in breaching a duty he had to take reasonable care of his crew.

The judge said it was his duty to sentence Litchfield, 56, for the criminal conduct which led to three deaths. He added: "These matters are so serious as to require the imposition of an immediate sentence to punish you for your criminal conduct which has resulted in the loss of three innocent lives".

He recognised that there was no sense of vindictiveness or need for retribution on the part of victims' relatives. The sentence was not intended to reflect the worth of the lives lost.

Cook Anne Taylor, 51, from Wallingford, Oxfordshire; assistant bosun Emily Macfarlane, 19, from Felixstowe, Suffolk and 30-year-old second engineer John Shannon, from Queensland, Australia, were killed when the 137-year-old Maria Asumpta hit submerged rocks at Mouls Rock, near Padstow, Cornwall, on 30 May l995.

Richard Lissack, QC, for the prosecution, had told the court that Litchfield failed to sail the ship at a safe distance from the shore, and had to rely on the engines to avoid grounding, knowing they were likely to fail because of contaminated fuel.

The Crown did not allege that Litchfield intended to kill the crew members, but that he was guilty of causing their deaths "by criminal negligence - by his unlawful if unintentional conduct".

After the verdict Ms MacFarlane's mother, Suzie, 51, said Litchfield had both influence and money and had used it to " wriggle out of his responsibilities as a leader".

In tears, she added: "Remember, this is a leader who managed to scramble off the boat before the two women and one man left behind had died."

Ms Macfarlane, who had only been on board for several months, was a poor swimmer and too terrified to jump overboard and swim to safety. However, just weeks before she had helped rescue someone who had fallen in the water at Gloucester docks. And a crewman who survived, Adam Pursar, 47, from St Mawes in Cornwall, described to the court how he had felt "completely and utterly" let down by Litchfield and had shouted at him "you bastard, you bastard" at the moment of impact.

Mr Pursar added: "I saw John Shannon. He was holding the base of a picnic box which was fairly buoyant but it did not have a handle and was difficult to hold on to. After a time his strength failed and he let go, and he disappeared."

However, the son of Ms Taylor, gave evidence on behalf of Litchfield during the trial, and said that he did not hold him responsible for her death. Darren Taylor, 22, had previously served with Litchfield on the Maria Asumpta, and told the jury he would be happy to sail with him again.

The Maria Asumpta tragedy was the second time Litchfield had been involved in a sinking of a ship. In l985, The Marques, which Litchfield co-owned, was lost at the edge of the so-called Bermuda Triangle during a Tall Ships race.

The Marques had featured in several television and film productions including Poldark, The Onedin Line, and Jamaica Inn as well as a production of Dracula with Lord Olivier. Litchfield was not on board at the time of the accident, and was not accused of an offence.

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