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British sailors’ deaths a mystery

The three men, who were on their way to a regatta, may have drowned in a collision with a larger vessel

The three men, who were on their way to a regatta, may have drowned in a collision with a larger vessel

British investigators late this summer were trying to determine why three sailors transiting the English Channel on their way to a regatta drowned, and why no trace of their sailboat could be found.

Officials with the Hampshire (England) Police and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of England’s Department of Transport were collaborating to find out what happened to the men and their 26-foot Sailfish, Ouzo. They were looking at the possibility that Ouzo collided with a larger vessel, possibly at night, and sank, says Hampshire Police communications manager Susan Rolling in an e-mail to Soundings.

One vessel under scrutiny was the 580-foot Pride of Bilbao, a 2,500-passenger ferry owned by P&O Ferries that travels between Portsmouth, England, and Bilbao, Spain, every three days, according to news reports. Authorities, however, say they were requesting the travel logs and other information from a number of vessels that were in the channel around the time of the accident.

“We will be in contact with all shipping that was in the relevant area at the relevant time,” Rolling says. She declined to speculate what other circumstances might have led to the accident.

At about 11 a.m. Aug. 22 fishermen discovered the body of 36-year-old South London resident James Meaby, a crewmember aboard Ouzo, floating in the English Channel about 10 miles southeast of the Isle of Wight, Rolling says. Police marine units and members of England’s Maritime and Coast Guard Agency launched a search for Rupert Saunders, 36, of South London — skipper and owner of the boat — and Jason Downer, 35, of Kent, the two other men with Meaby. The following day a Coast Guard helicopter crew spotted their bodies floating about five miles north of where Meaby was found. All three were wearing inflated PFDs.

Downer, Meaby and Saunders set sail the evening of Aug. 20 from Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, bound for Devon, England, where they planned to participate in the three-day Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta, says Rolling. The men were familiar with the route and were “competent, qualified sailors,” according to a joint statement released by their families. The three were childhood friends who had a “zest for life” and loved sailing, the statement says. Although the families say the sailboat was well-equipped, authorities received no distress call or signal from the Ouzo crew.

Foul weather shouldn’t have been a factor, according to information from the Met Office, an international provider of environmental and weather-related services. Visibility in the Channel near the Isle of Wight when Ouzo should have been under way reportedly ranged from about 11 to 27 nautical miles, sustained winds were 5 to 23 knots, and seas ranged from less than 1 foot to about 4 feet. Water temperature was about 62 F.

English sailors also were curious about the strange circumstances surrounding the tragedy. “Two scenarios seem popular,” says Mike Samuelson, secretary of the Bembridge Sailing Club. “The first is that they were hit from the stern by a large ship, or secondly that they got caught up in a [fishing] pot or net off St. Catherine’s Point, were slewed round in the tidal race, swamped and sank. The former appears to be thought the most likely.”

The investigation was expected to take several weeks, Rolling says.

Dee Caffari, who in May became the first woman to sail single-handed and non-stop around the world westward, against prevailing winds and currents, told England’s Daily Mail newspaper that sailing in shipping lanes, especially the English Channel, is the most dangerous part of any voyage. “Any sailor will say that shipping lanes are the hardest part,” Caffari says in the report. “It’s always a stressful time, and the English Channel is the busiest shipping channel in the world.”

Caffari adds that equipment like radar and radar transponders are helpful in avoiding collisions. “The earlier you can see danger and respond and take avoiding action the better, because these ships have bridges high up, and their view is obscured,” she says in the report. “A yacht below is just a tiny dot, so it’s about being aware of the risks.”