Skip to main content

Many factors cited in powerboat tragedy

Investigators point to inexperience, poor judgment and ill-suited PFDs in capsize that claimed three lives

The seven-month United Kingdom probe of a 24-foot powerboat’s foundering and the death of its crew illustrates the importance of seamanship, being aware of your boat’s limitations, and equipping it with functioning safety gear.

Image placeholder title

“It’s sad to see three people die needlessly through a lack of training and experience,” says Capt. Martin Harper of the U.K. Department of Transport’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MIAB). Harper spoke to Soundings in a telephone interview from Southampton, England.

Andrew Carrick, 45, the owner and skipper of the 2005 Bayliner, Last Call; his brother, John, 36; and Andrew’s partner, Jill Russell, 48, drowned after they fell off the boat and into the cold water of the North Sea Nov. 23, 2007. Andrew Carrick had imported the 245SB Ciera — a single-engine pocket cruiser — from the United States as a business venture, hoping to capitalize on the pound’s strength against the dollar, according to his father, John Carrick, 78.

In the 42-page report, the MAIB cites myriad factors that contributed to the tragedy, including the owner’s failure to have the boat properly inspected after purchase, a shortage of hand-holds on the boat, and life jackets ill-suited for the sea conditions. But the crew’s subpar boating skills and poor judgment stand out as the major factors, according to Harper, the lead inspector on the case. “No one on board the boat was able to judge the limitations of the vessel or recognize the dangers they faced on the day of the accident,” writes Harper in the report.

Last Call headed straight into a 25-mph north wind and breaking seas of 13 to 16 feet. Within seconds of leaving the mouth of Whitby Harbour on England’s northeast coast, Andrew Carrick lost control of the boat as the Bayliner climbed its second wave. The boat rose, bow pointed skyward, and dumped the brothers into the 49-degree water. Russell managed to remain on the boat, which had lost engine power or was in neutral, according to the report. She called 911 on her cell phone and remained in contact with the Coastguard for about five minutes until a wave capsized the Bayliner, and she, too, was thrown into the water.

The incident stands out as particularly tragic because Whitby rescue personnel tried to hail Last Call on VHF radio as it passed their lifeboat station. But the boat’s radio was turned off because Andrew Carrick incorrectly believed the working channels of the U.S.-made radio were incompatible with those used in the United Kingdom.

“I tried three times to call them on channel 16, but no one responded,” says Glenn Goodberry, 49, the engineer on the lifeboat, one of the vessels of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) Whitby station. “After the third time, we knew it was time to go. The lifeboat was only a short distance away.”

Rescuers weren’t the only ones who realized the Bayliner was headed for trouble. Peter Fitz-Gibbon, a police officer on vacation in Whitby, was watching the pounding surf and a pod of harbor seals from shore with his wife when he saw Last Call.

“I couldn’t believe [the boat] was leaving the harbor,” says Fitz-Gibbon, 43. “I must have gotten to within 50 or 60 feet of them. I was shouting at them to turn around, but they couldn’t hear me with all [the] noise of the wind and waves.”

Andrew and John Carrick’s father says the tall breakwaters on both sides of the harbor blocked the crew’s view of the huge seas. And once the trio exited the harbor, the size of the seas may not have been immediately apparent, according to the senior Carrick. “I’m not defending my boys’ actions, but I don’t believe they could see beyond the bar,” says Carrick, referring to the sandbar just beyond the harbor entrance. “When they got to the [dangerous] water, it was too late.”

The MAIB report states there were plenty of warning signs that more experienced boaters would have heeded. “They could not have failed to see the towering waves in the harbour entrance as they approached them,” writes Harper. “In reality, the decision to sail on the day of the accident was probably influenced by a perceived pressure to use the boat for a second and final trip before the winter layup.”

Business venture gone bad
Andrew Carrick spent 14 months searching the Internet for a boat he could buy in the United States and import to England, says his father. He says this was supposed to be the first of many boats his son would turn around for a profit.

In September 2007, Carrick paid $34,845 (17,231 pounds) for the Bayliner, powered with a 220-hp MerCruiser sterndrive with only 50 hours. After shipping and other fees, the final cost was $41,595 (20,569 pounds). An equivalent model purchased in the U.K. would have cost an additional $14,600 (8,000 pounds), according to the MAIB.

Carrick had operated the boat only twice before the fateful outing. His brother and Russell accompanied him on the trips, both Nov. 17. They wanted to haul the boat after the second outing but, after failing to maneuver the Bayliner onto its trailer, decided to leave it docked at the local marina.

Six days later, the trio returned to take the boat for a final cruise before hauling it. “This was the crew’s last chance to use and enjoy the boat before it was relaunched for the 2008 season,” according to the report.

That failed haul-out is another in a series of misfortunes that may have influenced the outcome. For one hour, they tried to get the boat on the trailer. If the Carrick brothers and Russell had successfully hauled the boat Nov. 17, would the Nov. 23 outing have occurred?

“I am unable to say whether they would have gone to the trouble of launching the boat again — probably unlikely,” says Harper. “The inability to maneuver the craft onto the trailer on the 23rd indicates a degree of inexperience, but tidal implications are also involved and would have had an impact on the time available to complete the operation.”

The experience factor
John Carrick says his sons were inseparable, and Russell was like a daughter-in-law. “The boys were always together, and she was a lovely woman, a very hard worker,” he says, adding that Andrew and Jill had been together for 26 years.

Last Call was insured for 35,000 pounds, but the insurance company did not pay, citing Andrew’s lack of boating experience, according to Carrick. However, he says his sons were far from novice boaters. “They were familiar with these coastal waters and had taken a boat from Stockton [on the River Tees] to Whitby several times,” he says.

But this was about 14 years prior to the accident, according to the MAIB. The brothers and Russell did take a small powerboat on occasional daytime fishing outings, the report states, and Carrick owned the powerboat for two years.

To prepare for boating again, Carrick had downloaded an eight-page publication from the Bayliner Web site that discussed basic boating safety. Investigators also recovered four boating DVDs on Carrick’s computer, including one titled “Improve Your Boating Skills and Knowledge.”

Brunswick responds
The MAIB investigates both commercial and recreational boating accidents, determining the circumstances and causes with the goal of preventing similar incidents. The reports are inadmissible in judicial proceedings conducted to attribute liability or blame.

In 2007, the branch completed 26 reports, four of which involved recreational boats. Two reports published in 2006 involved recreational vessels.

Alcohol played no role in the Last Call accident, according to the report. In the section analyzing the crew’s security aboard the Bayliner, the report states that a lack of sufficient and adequate hand-holds for the crew contributed to the Carrick brothers falling overboard. The crew got under way with the Bimini top erected and the front and side clear-vinyl curtains in place, which denied them the use of the windshield or cockpit coaming tops as hand-holds, according to the report.

“With few other hand-holds available, the crew was unable to hold on effectively in the violent motion they experienced,” the report states. “As the boat pitched up sharply, the skipper — who was presumably holding the steering wheel — and his brother literally fell out of the back of the cockpit and into the sea.”

In his interview with Soundings, Harper elaborated on the issue. “If two people have fallen out of the boat, clearly there’s an issue with the lack of hand-holds,” he says. “They needed something to hold on to — that all came across in this particular case.”

Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick Corp., parent company of Bayliner, has reviewed the MAIB report, according to Dan Kubera, Brunswick director of media relations and corporate communications. While the report points out the boat lacked hand-holds, Kubera says the MAIB never indicated the builder was in violation of any safety standards.

“We are encouraged by the fact that the MAIB did not see fit to make any formal recommendations to Bayliner or any other party, either regarding the provision of hand-holds aboard Last Call or regarding the amendment of the applicable safety standard,” says Kubera, referring to ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards that cover man-overboard prevention.

The ISO clearly lays down the standards for hand-holds, says Harper. “But the interpretation of what manufacturers deem to be suitable hand-holds varies considerably.”

The MAIB did, however, recommend that Brunswick consider downgrading the 245SB’s European designation for its seakeeping and safety capabilities. Bayliner 245SBs sold in Europe carry a Category B designation, which indicates the boat’s design and construction make it capable of withstanding up to 40-mph winds and 13-foot seas.

The International Marine Certification Institute gave the Bayliner this designation in 1999. Since then, international stability and buoyancy standards under this designation have become more stringent. This means the 245SB now would be categorized as an inshore boat capable of handling up to 27-mph winds and 6-1/2-foot seas. However, because the Bayliner 245SB design has remained unchanged since 1999, it can be “considered to be a ‘series production’ craft, and, therefore, there is no requirement for it to be reassessed against the improved standards,” the report states.

Harper disapproves of this grandfathered-in standard. “A consumer purchasing a new craft in the [European Union] should be confident that the craft conforms to the latest approved standards,” Harper writes in the report’s conclusion.

Kubera says Brunswick will not re-examine the issue. “The recommendation is asking Bayliner to go beyond the scope of the legal requirement currently imposed on it,” he says. “We hope that the MAIB will look further at this matter from Bayliner’s perspective and understand that it is unfair to single out Bayliner from other companies that operate in the same business sector, competitors that would not be subject to this recommendation.”

PCA and PFDs
Last Call likely would have been identified as an inshore vessel capable of handling moderate seas if it had undergone the appropriate inspection upon entering the United Kingdom, the report states.

It was Carrick’s responsibility to have a “post construction assessment” (PCA) done to make sure the boat met European safety standards under the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD), which sets requirements for the design and construction of recreational boats. Carrick looked into it, but never had the PCA done, according to the report. This is another factor that may have contributed to the accident.

“Had Last Call undertaken a PCA on importation to the U.K., in respect of stability and buoyancy, it would have been assessed against … the current standard and probably been assigned RCD Category C status,” the report states. “In this event, the skipper would have been more likely to know that the conditions on the day of the accident were beyond the boat’s operating capabilities and, therefore, too severe for a trip outside the harbour.”

The MIAB report also suggests that the life jackets worn by Andrew Carrick and Russell were inadequate for the conditions. Andrew Carrick and Russell were wearing U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type II PFDs. John Carrick was not wearing a life jacket. “Although they provided their wearers with some support and increased their chances of survival, the Type II PFDs were being used in sea conditions far exceeding their design criteria,” the report states.

The major issues: fit and buoyancy. A Type II PFD has 15.5 pounds of flotation. A life jacket with 62 pounds or even 34 pounds would have significantly increased Andrew Carrick and Russell’s chances of survival by doing a better job of keeping their heads above water, according to the report. In addition, PFDs designed for more severe conditions — such as USCG-approved Type I life jackets — are better able to turn an unconscious person face-up.

The buoyancy chambers of Carrick and Russell’s PFDs remained intact, but the fitting straps failed them, according to the MAIB. The nylon webbing loops on the front of the buoyancy chambers that held the backstraps on Carrick’s and Russell’s PFDs became detached from the body of the PFD, the report states. This allowed one of the chambers to float away from Carrick, while the collar of Russell’s jacket rode over her head.

The role of the PFDs became more pertinent “given the extremely fast lifeboat response time,” the report says. Seconds after failing to hail Last Call on the VHF, the seven-man crew of the 46-foot self-righting RLNI lifeboat sprang into action. Lifeboat station personnel contacted nearby Coastguard station Humber to request the aid of a helicopter. The harbor watchkeeper — in a building on the west side of the harbor entrance — also saw Last Call and contacted the harbormaster. In fact, Humber Coastguard reportedly received numerous calls about the small boat headed for big seas.

The rescue boat faced 20-foot seas at the harbor mouth, says Goodberry, the engineer on the lifeboat.

“Two giant waves stopped us, and we’re 28 tons,” he says. “So you can imagine what [the seas] were capable of doing to smaller, lighter vessels.”

Fitz-Gibbon, the vacationing police officer, hadn’t given up on Last Call. After watching the brothers fall overboard, he called 911 on his cell phone and kept his eyes on the two men, helping direct the rescue boat to them. A huge wave slammed Fitz-Gibbon, who was holding on to a post at the end of the breakwater. His phone went dead. But the harbor watchkeeper, who had made his way down the breakwater, caught up to Fitz-Gibbon and used a VHF radio to direct the rescue boat.

The crew pulled the men from the surf, but attempts to revive them were unsuccessful. “It happened so fast, maybe eight to 10 minutes,” says Goodberry, an RNLI member for 26 years. “It was a quick response, but not quick enough.”

Last Call drifted to the seaward side of the east breakwater — an area too shallow for the rescue boat. The helicopter was en route. As the rescue boat recovered the Carricks, Russell was able to contact the Coast Guard on her cell phone. The report describes her communication with authorities: “She reported that Andrew and John Carrick had been swept overboard from Last Call. Initially, it had been possible to hear their voices but that they were now out of sight and hearing. In a state of shock, she … was clearly concerned about the size of the incoming waves, their effect on the motion of Last Call, and the danger of making contact with the harbour wall.”

Several minutes later, a large wave hit Last Call, capsizing it and throwing Russell into the water. Some 20 minutes later, the rescue helicopter arrived and recovered her body. The wind and waves pushed the Bayliner onto the rocky shore, where it was pounded and broken up.

“We certainly have no complaints about the services of the lifeboat crew,” says John Carrick. “We cannot speak highly enough of them.”

John and his wife, Margaret, raised $1,000 for the RNLI to show their gratitude. The couple asked mourners at the funeral to donate to the group instead of giving flowers.

Margaret Carrick also visited the RNLI station in Whitby to say thank you.

“Grown men were crying because they couldn’t save them,” says Carrick.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue.