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Failure to protect crew leads to jail

Judge says fisherman neglected “essential safety precautions,” leading to the deaths of two crewmembers

Judge says fisherman neglected “essential safety precautions,” leading to the deaths of two crewmembers

A fisherman in Northern Ireland has been sent to jail for a year for failing to keep a look-out in an accident in which his two crewmembers died when his boat went up on rocks and quickly sank.

Conrad Zych, 28, owner and skipper of the 66-foot fishing vessel Greenhill, was sentenced June 26 to a year in jail for each of two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of crewmembers Donall Gibson, 22, and Connor Bogues, 24, according to Great Britain’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The two jail terms will run concurrently.

Greenhill was returning from a day of trawling for prawn when the wooden boat went up on rocks off the entrance to its home port of Ardglass just before 8 p.m., Jan. 19, 2006. No one was in the wheelhouse. Zych was on the shelter deck — an enclosed area on the main deck — helping his two deckhands process the catch, according to an August 2006 MCA report. When Greenhill shuddered to a stop, Zych ran to the wheelhouse and throttled the engines full astern while a deckhand hustled forward to check for damage.

Within 20 seconds, Zych had powered the 33-year-old ship off the rocks, thrown the engines full ahead, and turned the boat toward the harbor entrance. But then he heard the low-level bilge alarm go off and, leaving his other crewmember at the wheel, went below to the engine room to start an auxiliary motor to run a second bilge pump. The MCA report says Zych saw water flooding through a forward bulkhead into the engine-room bilge, and a few minutes later the high-level bilge alarm sounded. Zych told investigators he tried to grab life jackets from a compartment below, but the flooding kept him from reaching them.

Meanwhile, Greenhill was still running full ahead. The wheelhouse controls had gone dead, and now the boat was speeding away from shore. The deckhand who had checked for damage forward reported that the forepeak was almost full of water now, and the fish hold was half full. Zych made the decision to abandon ship.

The three wrestled with the life raft canister — on deck in a cradle atop the galley, immediately abaft the wheelhouse — and just as they released it the boat sank, leaving the three clinging to the canister. Zych pulled the painter to inflate the raft, but it inflated upside down. The skipper righted it after several attempts, but by then Gibson and Bogues, unable to keep hold of it, had slipped beneath the waves.

Zych climbed into the raft, and at around 9:20 p.m. a Coastguard lifeboat from Portaferry rescued him. The boat’s EPIRB had alerted rescuers to the sinking at 8:02. The lifeboat crew reported 15-foot seas, 20- to 25-knot winds and periodic rain as they raced to the scene. Divers found the wreck of Greenhill three days later, 650 yards from Ardglass harbor. The rocks had badly holed the bow and unfastened a number of planks. The divers found Gibson’s body on the seabed two days after they found the boat; cause of death was determined to be drowning. Bogues’ body wasn’t recovered.

Zych told MCA investigators he had knocked off trawling about 5:30 p.m., set an autopilot course for Ardglass (about 18 miles away), and set the boat’s speed at 6.5 to 7 knots. Zych went down to the shelter deck to help de-tail the prawns and returned to the wheelhouse every five minutes or so to check Greenhill’s position, adjust the autopilot and quickly scan the water — a common practice aboard fishing boats running on the Irish Sea, Zych said. In their report, MCA investigators noted that Greenhill was operating short one crewmember.

Zych said he had last checked the wheelhouse around 7:45 p.m., saw a navigational light for Ardglass harbor, and estimated their distance to shore at about a mile. He looked at neither the radar nor GPS to verify their position and returned to the shelter deck to finish with the prawns, a job he figured would take another five minutes. Just minutes later, Greenhill hit the rocks.

Zych pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charges May 20. At the sentencing, Belfast Crown Court Judge John Hart said Zych’s failure to keep a proper look-out amounted to gross negligence and directly led to the deaths of Gibson and Bogues.

“The economic pressures on the fishing industry in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the U.K. are well-known, but whilst they may explain, they can never justify skippers neglecting essential safety precautions such as keeping a proper watch on the approach to a difficult harbour entrance in the dark and in deteriorating weather conditions, as happened here,” the judge said in press and MCA accounts of the hearing. “That the failure to keep a proper watch is a not-uncommon practice cannot exculpate the defendant from punishment, nor should it affect the nature of the punishment.”

Other factors cited in the MCA report that contributed to the sinking include:

• No distress call was made using the VHF’s DSC function.

• Life jackets, flares and immersion suits could not be retrieved from their normal stowage in the accommodation space.

• Maneuvering the vessel ahead following the grounding, along with penetrations to the vessel’s main transverse bulkheads, increased the rate of flooding through the vessel’s damaged bow.

• All electrical power was lost because the vessel’s generators, batteries and “switchboards” were fitted low down in the engine room and were not protected against water ingress, and because the Greenhill’s construction predated the requirement for a separate, emergency power source for lights and the VHF.

A finding of gross negligence, a conviction for involuntary manslaughter and a sentence to a year jail term are neither unreasonable nor unheard-of in cases where people die as a result of a skipper’s failure to keep a proper look-out, says Richard Dein, of Annapolis, Md., an expert witness in maritime cases.

“Every vessel shall at all times maintain a proper look-out by sight and hearing as well as by all available means appropriate in the prevailing circumstances and conditions so as to make a full appraisal of the situation and of the risk of collision,” Rule 5 of the Navigation Rules reads.

Rule 5 requires a proper look-out at all times, Dein says, and the Law of Seamen clearly makes the master responsible for the safety and care of his crew while they are on the vessel. “This master was not looking out for the well-being of his vessel or crew by not having someone in the wheelhouse,” Dein says.

Masters do have discretion in deciding what is a “proper look-out,” he says. In the middle of the Pacific, a small vessel might not have someone in the wheelhouse at all times. In coastal waters among traffic and shoals, it should.

“Under case law, a lookout must be competent, vigilant, ordinarily have no other duties, [be] properly positioned, and must make reports to the bridge,” Dein says.

MCA guidance in maintaining a proper navigation watch includes:

• Watches must be manned by competent people who are fit for duty.

• Proper look-out must be kept at all times.

• Check the vessel’s position by all available means. Do not rely on a single piece of equipment.

• Other traffic must always be monitored.

• Do not use navigation aids for purposes for which they are not intended.

One of MCA’s recommendations arising from this case could be well-taken by any mariner: “Improve the standard of watchkeeping … with particular emphasis on the importance of not leaving the wheelhouse unattended when at sea.”